Monday, October 3, 2016


Sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.)  This word, though only popular in pop culture, has so much meaning for me.  I walk alongside the lives of so many individuals.  I get an inside glimpse of people going through extreme stress and achieving amazing goals and get the privilege of traveling that journey with them, of hearing their fears, hopes, losses and aspirations. 

I remember when my mother died suddenly at 57, I wasn’t ready to let her go and I grieved for a long time, the loss was so profound.  A close co-worker asked me three months after her passing “when was I going to get back to normal.”  She had never lost someone close to her.  When her own mother died from cancer years later, she called in that grief-stricken moment and told me her mother died.  The pain in her voice was palatable, I knew it, I had felt it before.  Sonder.

We see people on TV.  We see them acting in ways that are different than how we would act in a given situation and we make judgments – we all do it.  We forget that their pain, their sorrow, their hopes, their dreams, how much they love their children, their significant others – is just as vivid as how we love our own children and significant others.  Their pain, though potentially expressed differently, is just as real, just as vivid as our own.   If we can understand that, if we can see the pain, the joy, the life in another, we can let go of some of the judgment and feel for those around us.  This broadens our capacity for compassion and caring.  Broadens our desire to see things get better for others and to look for real sustainable solutions. It helps us understand that behaviors happen for a reason and until we can reach out to understand the reason, it is hard for us to achieve real change.

A highly respected businessman in our community was at a meeting recently and shared “That others had not had the same opportunity as he had and he wanted to try and make that possible.”  Impressive.  In the scope of his incredibly busy, vivid life, full of his own tremendous joys and sorrows – he paused and could see that there are others struggling around him and he wants to make a difference.  He chose to see, and that choice is important.  We can, at any given time, see or turn away, and sometimes because it is too painful, sometimes because we don’t understand, sometimes because we feel guilt, or sometimes because our own life demands so much, we turn away, make judgments, or label those experiences of others as invalid.  Just as my coworker asked me when I would “return to normal” – we discount the experiences of others.  But we can choose to see, seek to understand, and allow ourselves to walk alongside others whose life experiences are different than our own. 

Sonder.  Whether in politics, riots in communities, or refugees fleeing their homes, there is a reason that people behave as they do.  Their experiences and perceptions, though potentially different than our own, are just as valid, just as colorful, just as real as our own and they drive our own perceptions, judgments and beliefs.  But if we can allow ourselves to see life through the colorful blue, green, or brown eyes of someone else – seek to understand the life they live, we can learn so much and be changed for the better! 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

There's No Place Like Home!

Imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t have a home to live in.  If you were facing eviction and you didn’t know where you and your children would live.  If you thought that where you were living was just too expensive but when you looked around, the cost of rentals was higher than you pay now.  Imagine if you were working, often more than one job, and you still couldn’t afford to live in your community. How would that impact your work, your sense of self, your health, your children, your future? 

I was stunned, at the recent Commissioners Forum on Housing, by the speakers’ data and viewpoints on the unaffordability of housing.  We see it on a daily basis – our shelters are full of families (most of them working) who can’t afford housing in our community.  But hearing it from a business, health, planning and educational perspective was astounding.  The impacts on our community are so vast.  Dr. Amy Dailey, from Gettysburg College, shared the data and the correlation between housing and depression, stress and other health issues.  Suzanne Christianson, a local realtor, shared the difficulties of finding housing for low wage families and seniors on a fixed income.  Rob Thaeler, Principal Planner for Adams County shared the facts about housing in our local community and how most of the housing developed here draws from those moving into our area and working outside of the county - with most houses being built costing above $250,000.

Dr. Chris Echterling from Wellspan Health (also Physician of the Year in Pennsylvania for 2016) shared stories about how housing significantly impacts a family’s ability to be healthy and the new data on addiction and recovery and their strong ties to housing, as well as, the cost of providing housing compared to providing shelter space, mental health units and health care - it was so compelling.   

Robin Fitzpatrick shared data relating to business and how local HR reps said that families earning under $50,000 per year can’t afford housing (and many earning under $80,000 can’t either) and the impact on their businesses.  When she shared that individuals working in family/social services just earn enough to cover the costs for a one-person family, that was bad enough, but she went on to share that those in the service industry - who support our tourism economy don’t earn enough to even support a family of one – I couldn’t help but think of how big this problem is.

But most of all, the stories shared by Kelly DeWees, from Gettysburg School District, about the more than 128 homeless children the district serves and the story of a family renting a U-Haul trailer by the week so that their kids could sleep in a shelter that was cheaper than housing in the community, I was heartbroken. 

This isn’t a social services problem!  And if you mistakenly think the social services world has it covered, you are so very wrong.  There are nearly no resources to help – governmental or otherwise.  And this isn’t a people making the wrong choices problem – it is a matter of numbers.  We live in a community fueled by agriculture and tourism – traditionally low wage jobs-  but we live in a college town that is a bedroom community to Baltimore and Washington.  A beautiful community in a state that offers tax advantages for those retiring here.  Those factors push up the cost of living – which wouldn’t be a problem if we had wages that enabled people who work in our community to afford to live here – but for many, that just isn’t the case.  Poverty in our community is working families who earn low wages (often from more than one job) and seniors on a fixed income.  If you work in Adams County, you may well be struggling to live in Adams County.  We have to fix this!  We, as a community, have to change this.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Bearing Scars but Growing Stronger.

A dear friend of mine had come across the country to Harrisburg for work.  We hadn’t seen each other for more than two years and I was really anxious to see her.  Our last time together had been when her husband was very ill; he’d had terminal cancer. And I wanted to see her, to see that she was as okay as could be in this circumstance.  We’d talked many times over the course of the two years, and I had tried to be as supportive as I could from so far away, but the truth is, aside from being present, caring, and empathetic; there just isn’t much you can do to ease someone’s grief.   It is so raw, so real and certainly this lovely couple didn’t deserve this, my friend didn’t deserve this.

It was so good to see her; we had dinner and talked for hours.  Processing life experiences we both have had, sharing tears and laughter.   In part of our discussions, she said “You know I didn’t choose this journey, but at some point I had to decide that since I am on this journey, I am going to be an inquisitive tourist – I am going to learn what I can, I am going to make some value come out of it.” She shared some of what she learned about herself, her husband, life, and how her perspectives have changed.  I haven’t stopped thinking about that since we talked.  She is a brilliant, insightful woman.  And this change in perspective didn’t change the pain – the suffering, or the loss.  But it allowed her, during this horrendous experience, to allow herself to change, to see things differently.  She is still herself and yet totally different.  I know that sounds like a contradiction, but the depth of her life has changed.  She is still sad, and still, of course, bears the present marks of grief, but in some ways she is even more comfortable in her own skin – she owns the experience, not running from it, but enduring and going through it.

Kahlil Gibran said "Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars." Life is full of experiences good and bad, difficult and gratifying.  Each experience provides an opportunity to change our trajectory, our perspectives, to help us become more authentic and open us up to more.  There is so much to learn, so much to experience, both good and bad.  And we, or at least I, can try and pull away from the painful experiences as if I can “work” my way through them instead of experiencing them, instead of experiencing life.  Not only are we trying to avoid the unavoidable, but we waste energy fighting the wrong stuff.  We can become judgmental of others, not understanding that they are on an equally valid journey, full of difficulties and joys.  We might see our own experiences as the only right path. But life is an unpredictable journey, full of opportunities to see differently, to grow, to become more of ourselves, deeper, richer, more authentic. 

I think about her words frequently, trying to be an inquisitive tourist on my own journey, enjoying the cultures and experiences around me, learning to endure and go through difficulties instead of avoiding them, and appreciating those precious people who have helped me grow and learn more about myself through the process.  And just as important, to me at least, is joining others on their journey, supporting them when appropriate, and walking beside them when they just need someone to be present, valuing and respecting their journey, their life, their goals.  Change and pain are unavoidable but we can be changed for the better if we allow it and see it all as part of the glorious journey we are on.  Bearing scars but growing stronger.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Knowing Versus Feeling - Such a Profound Difference!

We had a national speaker, Jodi Pfarr, come do training for our staff on Living in a Diverse World.  I had heard some of it at a conference but the whole training was incredibly impactful. 

We took some time to really look at dominant cultures, where we each fit, and how we tend to normalize that context.  But the way she did it was so concrete and tangible.  We had a diagram of 12 pairs of triangles (one of each pairs was right side up and blue while the other was upside down and red).  We identified 12 situations where policy or systems were geared toward the dominant culture (like being right handed versus left handed, middle class versus poverty, etc…).  When we were done identifying the 12 situations, we each circled, on our own papers, where we were part of the dominant culture and where we were not.  It helped us have a context for our discussions for the rest of the day. 

It was a great day and a number of staff told me it was the best training they ever attended.  They want to put red and blue triangles on their computers to remind them that others may see things from a different perspective and that it is a valid perspective. 

I was talking to Jodi afterwards and she said something that was so profound to me.  She said when you are part of the dominant culture you get it academically, you can know it – but when you are part of the non-dominant culture you feel it because you are experiencing it.  This is not new information and really it’s pretty obvious – experience speaks louder in our heads and hearts than knowledge, but hearing it in this context, around cultural norms, really made me think.   

Someone I care deeply about was dealing with mental health issues.  They were feeling particularly vulnerable and couldn’t reach a family member so they called crisis – exactly as they were supposed to do.  Four state police cars showed up at their house and took them in handcuffs to the hospital even though they were not at all violent and were going completely voluntarily – it is standard protocol.  I met them there and we were taken to an empty room – just a mattress on the floor.  I sat, in my dress, on the floor beside them – not wanting them to feel like everyone who was interacting with them was looking down on them.  I serve on a health systems board so I know those processes exist to keep staff and the individual safe.  But I cannot put into words what experiencing it felt like.  And as much as I felt it, I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for the individual I was with.  Voiceless.  Vulnerable.  Feeling the full weight of the experience.    

We can know about the complexities, the difficulties that come from feeling like you have little or no voice, but that is far different than feeling voiceless.  Obvious, I know – but so many truths are that way, simple and overlooked.  As Marcel Proust said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beautiful Shades of Color

Steven Covey has a quote I love “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” I’m a quote person – well actually maybe more precisely, I am a person who loves to understand the experiences of others, and I feel like quotes provide a glimpse into a piece of the soul of another.  The word “sonder” is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – how profound and amazing.  My daughter and I frequently ponder that as we sit at a cafĂ© or walk down the street.  People all around us have profound stories and experiences – just as poignant and meaningful, wonderful and difficult, as our own experiences.  The song “I Gave You All” by Mumford and Sons illustrates that point to me when they say “How can you say that your truth is greater than ours.” 

So simple. So poignant. And so very true.  Our truth is based on our experiences, the life we have lived, and what we have seen.  And somehow we make the leap that our truth is the same as those around us and when it is not we can negate the experiences of others because our own journey is different than theirs.  It seems to be part of the American Way to believe someone is right and someone is wrong – concretely right or wrong.  Frequently with no room for variations – we see shades of gray (or as I like to see it, shades of beautiful colors) as somehow wrong.  We discount things, and worse yet, people, because they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria we established.

I was recently walking the halls of a hospital with a loved one.  There was a young man on the floor who had been there for a number of weeks.  Ryan has some developmental disabilities, as well as, some mental health issues.  He was a delightful young man, with the kindest soul.  He made friends with everyone (including me) and talked about his dreams and aspirations.  During the course of my visit one night he made a really astute observation about his roommate and no one listened to him – including me.  About 20 minutes later an event occurred that showed how astute he was – he saw what we had all missed.  I was once again reminded of my own stereotypes and assumptions, reminded to not write someone off because they were different than me, but to listen more closely, to really hear from others. 

People all around us have profound gifts, the more we recognize that, the richer our lives can be.  The more we see that people all around us are having experiences that are just as profound as ours.  That though they may have lived life differently, their experiences are just as valid as ours.  Their truth is just as real, just as poignant even if it is different than our own.    Shades of color that, when we pay attention, can help us so much more clearly understand the wonders, issues, and complexities of life.  We can see more.  We can see further.

I work with families on a daily basis that are discounted or ignored.  Their truth, based on their very real and valid experiences, is different than many of ours.  Yet smart, profound and telling – a different shade of color that helps us more clearly see the issues, so we can more appropriately look for solutions.  Imagine what the world would be like if we embraced the idea of the word “sonder” – that we saw the benefit of those very real and different experiences of those walking around us – think of the problems we could solve if we could see it more completely.  Think of how much more rich the picture becomes when we add beautiful hues of color and design!    

Friday, August 15, 2014

Families Helping Families!

I was walking through our Franklin County office.  It had been an incredibly busy week and I was taking a moment to visit staff and programs – to reclaim why I do this work.  Becky, from our Work Ready program motioned me in to look at the beautiful canned tomatoes that the families in her program had made with the help of Virginia, a Circle Leader who is gifted in canning and making the most of what you have.  As we talked, Jennifer, one of the Work Ready participants, chimed in telling me how she was part of the glean that happened earlier in the week (the first glean in Franklin County!). 

Gleaning is such a brilliant concept.  It allows farmers and producers to contact SCCAP when they have excess produce that they don’t want to go to waste.  Our Gleaning Coordinators then bring a group of volunteers out to the farm to pick the produce which is then distributed to low income families in the community.  SCCAP has administered this program in Adams County for just over a year and has brought in more than 130,000 pounds of produce.  Last month, with help from a grant from the Summit Health Endowment, we were able to spread this successful program to Franklin County.  Jennifer and her two children, age 16 and 7, came out to volunteer to be part of the first glean.  The group brought in nearly two thousand pounds of fresh corn.  Jennifer was so excited.  She said that she and her children loved the experience and can’t wait to participate again. 

We make assumptions about families who are struggling in poverty.  We assume they are lazy, that they are waiting on someone else to help them out, or that they are taking advantage of the system.  My experiences are so different than the stereotypes.   Virginia, a family in our Circles initiative volunteered her time to come into Work Ready to teach families how to can and preserve produce.  Jennifer and her children volunteered to go pick corn so that other families could have access to fresh produce.  Both joyously giving back to their community.  We see this all the time! 

Families are not broken or deficient – they are just like you or I except they may have some additional barriers to overcome.  They may have had children early or be a single parent.  They may be dealing with mental health issues.  They may have not had the opportunity to go to college so they are trapped in a low wage job structure.  And frequently their parents were living in poverty as well, reducing the opportunities that existed for the family.  But they are not broken or deficient.  Many families can budget better than I can.  And when provided some time and space, they create amazing plans to build resources to help them move toward stability.  They are committed and driven but need guidance and opportunity.  And amidst all of the hard work, they give back frequently in ways the general public frequently does not see.

Cara, who works 60 – 70 hours per week to meet her financial needs, takes time weekly to volunteer at Circles serving as a mentor to other families or assisting with child care.  Roberta and Bobby are working to become facilitators of Money Skills the program they feel helped them learn how to change their values and thinking about managing their money.  Marci, Nereida and Adrienne are serving as allies for families in Circles, giving back to other families in a program that helped them.  Virginia will assist The Gleaning Project ( ) by teaching others how to can.  Camille teaches couponing and how to save money on things families need.  Jennifer and her children are examples of the many families who volunteer to help provide resources to help others.  Families helping other families!  Families, who while fighting against the odds themselves, are incredibly vested in being part of the solution to help build  an effective path out of poverty!  Please join us in this important work -


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What Makes This Work So Difficult.

This work can be so difficult.  One might assume it is the clients that make it tough.  And it is incredibly difficult and guilt provoking to work with so many, who have so little, and are working so hard to build a better life.  But what really makes this work so daunting is when you watch someone run into barrier after barrier, many of which are the very systems that are established to help them – that is what truly makes this work so difficult.

I just came back from speaking with a young woman who is diligently working to get back on her feet.  She thanked me for the help she had received here at SCCAP and we talked about the issues she is now having trying to find housing.  She finally received her Section 8 voucher which would enable her to find housing she could afford – she thought the tough part was over -  but actually the tough part had just begun.  It is tough to find housing to meet Section 8 criteria and not all landlords will work with this program.  But she was working with a landlord who our shelter staff  had built a good relationship with.  He wants to help families get back on their feet – he sees it as a way he can give back.  They found an apartment that met the guidelines and cost restrictions, and the landlord agreed to make the few corrections required.  Everything seemed good to go - only to find out later in the process that the fence, which belongs to and resides on the neighbor’s property, is not up to code and that precludes her  from using the Section 8 voucher for that property.  The landlord was willing to rent to her and was willing to make any of the corrections to the house and property he owns that were needed, but he could not repair his neighbors fence, and the suggestion that he put up a fence along side of the neighbors was simply too cost prohibitive.  Such a frustrating situation for this young woman who now needs to start over!  And imagine the frustration of this landlord who now thinks the government regulations associated with housing are ludicrous.  A step in the wrong direction!

Another family we are working with has a disabled adult child.  The only income they are currently receiving is the $721, her son is eligible for under disability.  Mom wants to work, but there is no available adult day care for her developmentally disabled son.  Programs that provide those services have multiple year waiting lists.  How can someone find housing and pay for living expenses for just over  $700.00 per month?  Imagine the stress of having a disabled adult child, and then add on being homeless.  How very daunting!

We think people are stuck in poverty just because of the decisions they make.  It is rarely that easy!  Like situations in all of our lives, there is always more to the story, complexities that make things much more difficult.  It is overcoming those barriers that allow families to stabilize and then move on to self-sufficiency.  Overcoming those barriers requires effective partnerships.  And sometimes it takes exposing crazy regulations, systems, and policies to the light of day so they can be corrected – so that we can push for smarter regulations and policies that really support families in moving forward!