How the Other Half Lives
Journeys through the non-profit world
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 14:10
I have never really held a “normal job” for very long. Instead, I have gravitated towards the human service field dealing with crisis situations. As far as “normal jobs” go, I am talking about the types of jobs a majority of teenagers, young adults and college students work-- ones that primarily entail food and retail. My experiences in these are few.
My stint at JC Penney at 15 was short lived. Apparently I was not too good at this whole customer service thing. I committed retail cardinal sins daily. I set change on the counter instead of handing it to the customer’s inpatient hand (gasp!). I never tried to upsell. I never tried to push people to sign up for credit cards. In short, I was a manager’s nightmare.
Here was a typical scenario. Frantic grandmothers would come in to purchase clothes for their granddaughter’s birthday. Often they would have no idea what size she wore or how old she was turning. They would hold out their hands, explaining “well she’s this big, see she eats a lot of cake and plays those new-fangled contraptions all day.” They would ask me where the “husky” sizes were, then I would proceed to explain to them that girls’ sizes were called “plus sizes” and fumble awkwardly to find a size. They would leave frustrated that I was just a kid myself, which I was.
Two months later while shopping, I awkwardly ran into my manger. He informed me that he had to “take me off the schedule,” the PC, corporate way of “letting employees go.” I smiled through the lump in my throat and drowned my sorrows in an extra-large Orange Julius in the mall food court.
Retail was not for me. I found my place in the sun so to speak, as a youth mentor at a small non-profit organization. This was a job with more responsibility and more seriousness than I could really grasp at the time. I helped kids from broken homes, kids with ADHD, kids with autism, Asperger’s and disorders I did not know how to pronounce at the time, much less what they actually meant.
I will always remember the wild-eyed fire and kind heart of a small four-year-old boy who was my first client. This boy had stolen his parent’s car at four years old, been expelled many times, and most staff refused to work with him. The first time I went to pick him up at his run-down trailer, I got a glimpse outside my sheltered middle class bubble. Where toys and trinkets lined the shelves at my house, here they were lined with alcohol bottles and garbage. My house smelled like potpourri, here it smelled like stale cigarette smoke and mold.
The boy looked at me with big brown eyes brimming with a curious fascination and excitement. His hair was as disheveled as his spirit. I took him to the park, where we chased each other through the slides on a crisp fall day. We had a blast. Yet in the car, I saw a mischievous glint in his eyes. He tried to shift my car into a different gear and jump out the window. Another time he dug his teeth into my arm like it was some sort of teething ring.
I was firm but fair with him, as he was my little buddy. He taught me perseverance, resilience, and about curiosity and imagination. I found working with these kids resonated with me. I was naturally a kid at heart with a youthful energy coupled with patience. Fast forward a few years later, where I went to school for social work and have since worked a spectrum of non-profits from group homes to homeless shelters to treatment centers.
In the second half of this piece, I will discuss in more detail “How the Other Half Lives,” the often-invisible problem of homelessness in Fargo, and working in non-profits.
Look for the second half of Tessa’s article in Monday’s issue of The Spectrum.
Tessa is a senior majoring in English.