My unforgettable experience volunteering at a halfway house

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A few years ago, a friend told me about a local residence for men just released from prison or rehab. They were seeking a volunteer to help the residents with job searches and resumes. I admired their mission, and since it wasn’t far from my house, I told my friend, yes, OK, sign me up.

And so began my two-year weekend volunteer experience. The first day, I arrive early, groggy with my coffee. It is a three-story brick residence on a noisy street in the DC area. The resident social worker greeted me at the door and gave me a quick tour.  It was tidy, and simple, furniture looked donated. There were about twenty men living there, spanning all ages. During the tour he explained that residents could live there for 6 months but with a catch – they had to actively seek employment, meet regularly with a social worker, and follow the house rules. He pointed out the computer lounge where I would be working and promised to refer 1 or 2 residents to work with me on job applications each weekend that I would visit. 

I found myself in new terrain.

It took a few weekends to adjust. As I began helping clients with resumes and job searches, I learned their stories. Some struggled with addiction. Some got in with the wrong crowd as a young person. Some had learning disabilities. Each of them impressed me as kind and empathetic, and wanted a better life. Each of them had unique talents and gifts.

I observed very low self-esteem. If I said something to a client like, “Wow, I’m impressed, you worked at a pretty posh restaurant” – he would look so surprised, and he would glow and sit up straighter. The smallest encouragement meant the world to them. I sensed that my clients didn’t have people in their lives who were cheerleading for them. Their normal was crisis and drama.

There were so many challenges.

Our small “computer lab” doubled as a lounge and comically, it had the only TV in the house. Imagine game day! We rarely had a quiet place to work on a job application, but we did our best.

The halfway house was operating on a shoestring budget. Like the donated furniture, the computers were donated and refurbished, and there was no IT team to call when the computers didn’t work or the internet went out. 

Sometimes, when I was just starting to feel excited as a client put the finishing touches on one of those long job applications for a retail store, we would pause as we got to “the box” question. The question would be, do you have a criminal record? My client would be embarrassed to answer this in front of me, and of course this would make it challenging to get hired.

And then I met Paul.

The person I’ll remember most from my time volunteering at the halfway house was a young man I’ll call “Paul.” Paul was in his early 20’s. I later learned that he had been in the criminal justice system his whole life. He had a learning disability.  One Saturday morning I noticed a shy, quiet young man writing in a notebook and looking frustrated. I introduced myself and offered my help. He said, “Maybe you can help me. I went to my first GED class this week. Here is what the teacher showed us.” He pointed at his notebook,  “What does this mean?”  I saw that he had been writing out very long URLs of websites. It filled pages.  I couldn’t imagine why he wrote all of this.

Then it came to me— Paul didn’t know that a URL was something you click on to open a website. For a moment I was speechless. This was 2013. His GED instructor was probably sharing helpful websites on a projector, but Paul didn’t know how to navigate the internet, or computers, at all.

My heart broke for him. The system has failed this young man.

We must do better.

All in all, I spent two years volunteering at the halfway house, and I will never forget the honor of working with those men and their stories.  I learned from them. I won’t forget the joy of seeing a light in someone’s eyes as we worked together.

More recently, as I was writing a book about how to be an effective and innovative nonprofit, I would think about the generous people who donated and made this halfway house possible.  I would think about the hardworking social worker, and the heroic men who were struggling to find a new start in life.

People with the most need, people like Paul, the underserved, need resources and help. They need well-run organizations.  So if you are involved in the important work of social change, of building civil society and lifting people up—THANK YOU for all you do. It matters.