When I headed to John Brown University as a college freshman, I never planned on working in social services. In fact, I had not planned to graduate from JBU. I would spend two years in Siloam Springs and finish most of the general education classes. Then I would transfer to the University of Kansas, finish my psychology degree, and return home to Topeka to work in my field. But then, many things came together to change my mind. First, I loved the classes, teachers, and attention I received as a JBU student. Second, I was provided an opportunity to spend the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in Kansas City serving as an intern at City Union Mission.
With the blessing of my parents, I headed to KC to work with the dedicated staff at the Mission’s family center. Many experiences opened my eyes, including interviewing and packing food for families seeking emergency help; preparing a room in the shelter for a new family; and visiting my camp kids in their bug-infested homes. However, nothing had a greater impact than going to sleep in the shelter. I shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the families and single women. Each evening after work and on the weekends, I played with the children. And I listened to children crying at night while their mothers rocked them to sleep. Their stories became real to me and something inside me began to change.
When I returned to JBU in the fall, I saw things differently. The abundance of food in the cafeteria reminded me of the hungry children sitting in the waiting room with their mothers. My private dorm room with its comfortable bed brought to mind the families sleeping in their cars awaiting an open room at the shelter. The choir at chapel reminded me of the mothers singing to their children. I was physically in Siloam Springs, Arkansas but my heart was still playing duck-duck-goose with kids at Camp CUMCITO.
From that point on, I spent every summer break working as an intern at City Union Mission. I am confident that I learned more valuable lessons there than I did in the classrooms at John Brown University. A month before my graduation I received a call that I never expected. The mission wanted me to take over as the Family Shelter Administrator at the same place I had spent seventy-five nights each summer during my college breaks. What of the plans to return to my hometown and begin my career using my psychology degree? It seemed that God had other plans. I said “yes,” and in less than two months, my career in homeless services began.
Almost thirty years later, I still recall the lessons I learned during my first 75 days at City Union Mission. Probably one of the most challenging lessons I learned was that helping others can hurt if you do not learn take care of yourself. I also learned that you could not fix anyone. You can only show them options and pray that they utilize those options to make different decisions. Since then I have I have learned that you are never too old to learn new lessons. Thank goodness for the opportunity to continue my growth and share my experiences with the staff, board and volunteers of Transitional Living Centers of Oklahoma.