Making a Real Difference

Helping others requires not just our best effort—but all of who we are.

Posted Mar 09, 2016

This morning, I read an article in the New York Times that brought tears to my eyes; arguably one of the most special and important pieces I’ve seen in a long time. It’s about an organization called Thread, which is working in Baltimore to not only make a difference in the lives of underprivileged youth in the community. But to make THE difference. Going beyond traditional therapy, support, education, and inspiration, Thread provides ninth graders struggling in school and at home with a team of volunteers who commit to supporting these young men and women for ten years.  Full time, all the time, no matter what. 

While living in New York, I volunteered to coach five young singers in the foster care system, and became very close to them. In the time we were together, we talked about far more than music... their lives, their relationships, and their families… their struggles, hopes, and dreams. As we grew closer, I began to demand more of them than good singing: belief in and love of themselves; respect from friends, lovers, and others; dedication to academics and their communities... and that they go to college.

As David Bornstein’s article about Thread alludes to, the more I suggested that they could do anything they set their minds to, the more they resisted. Disbelief was initially replaced by frustration, then by anger. In time, anger was replaced by curiosity, then by fear... and finally, by determination. It took two full years of being with these girls– of loving them– for them to start believing in themselves the way I believed in them.

And those marvelous young women–coming from families where no one had gone to college–not only went, but are graduating. 

I continued working in the community–and with these young women– during my graduate school internship in psychology, and was amazed by the resistance from my supervisor when it came to my caring ‘beyond 9-5'. My desires to buy hungry kids food, to help to get them jobs, to take them to gatherings related to their chosen industries and interests, and to speak with them by phone, text, and Facebook when they were in need resulted in reprimands about boundaries and inappropriateness.  I was criticized for encouraging kids to believe in dreams and goals 'beyond where they were'…

Certainly we have to be mindful about the construction and development of relationships in our field. But as this article–and this wonderful organization–addresses, if you want to make a real difference, you can't just improve education, services, research, and facilities, and then go home at the end of the day. You need to loveTo care. To invest in people, and to make a commitment to them. Powerfully. Personally. 24/7. 

I am still a part of these young women's lives, and they are a part of mine. They're family, and I love them as such. Some of us travel together, and spend holidays together. I know their parents and they know me; we have open doors to one another. 

Why are such connections so important? Why must we go above and beyond in this way? Because our making a full, true commitment is the only way they know we’re invested in them and not just in a paycheck. What's more, problems don’t disappear when we’re no longer ‘on the job’; neither the fears nor the realities of hunger, failure, homelessness, and abuse stop just because our workday is over.

We may do great work in therapy, but the ‘real stuff' happens out in the real world. When I first introduced one of the young women to my then fiancé at a local restaurant, she ignored him for the first half of our meal together. She ‘hated men’, and was terrified that I would leave her, as her mother had left her for a string of lovers.

Seven years later, she’s not only seen, but knows that it doesn’t have to be this way. She's now as close, if not closer, to my husband than she is to me. I'm not sure that such powerful, context-altering 'results' would have been possible without such a connection and commitment. Without such love.

Thank you, Thread, for your wonderful work, and for inspiring me to continue to look for ways to reach out and make a difference. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to read about what they're up to. And to look into ways that you too can connect more personally and powerfully with those whom you are seeking to serve.