Reflecting on Social Services: Lessons from a Virus

Dear Friends,
I seem to spend all year doing, but in the last weeks of December I spend most of my time just being—being with family, friends, books, and with my thoughts as I reflect on what has been and what can be. I hope you too are finding joy and peace in doing less and in “being” more.  
May this joy and peace remain with you throughout the New Year.

As 2020 comes to an end, people desperately hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be a thing of the past. It may never completely go away of course, but when it no longer dominates the way we live our daily lives much will remain that threatens our health and well-being. The pandemic has shown us that our social service system is broken by revealing deep flaws in our social safety net. By drawing our attention to the importance of social connectedness, it may also have helped us see ways our systems of care can become more humane and more effective.

Poverty, debilitating mental and physical health illnesses, developmental disabilities, abuse and neglect, housing instability, and loneliness will always be a part of our American landscape. Much has been written about how COVID 19 has made issues related to these conditions worse; just think of the troubling stories about residents in nursing homes or children with developmental disabilities. Much less attention has been paid to how the pandemic has revealed what more can be done to address these issues.

Pervasive in our social service system are the long-standing beliefs that: 

  • providing services involves addressing single issues related to needs, deficits, or challenges; and
  • a hierarchy or chain of command must exist between those providing the services and those who need help. 

For a long time, it never occurred to me to question these beliefs. In Neighbors, through the stories of the residents of Hope Meadows, I introduce intentional neighboring as a way to impact well-being and strengthen our social safety net. These stories represent daily acts of care, support, and friendship with neighbors expressing gratitude, understanding, concern, and joy. At first, we saw these interactions through a traditional lens—neighbors providing an intervention service by focusing on meeting specific needs of those most vulnerable, the highly troubled children who called Hope home. Clearly this is important. Who wouldn’t try to meet the needs of someone they care about, perhaps for medical attention or tutoring? 

We gradually realized, however, that what we were witnessing was far more than a traditional social service intervention. As intergenerational relationships evolved based on trust, knowledge, and shared experiences, they morphed into reciprocal caring relationships. What became most important to the adults who lived in the neighborhood was not a primary focus on, for example, helping a child learn to read or to control his temper, but on helping children with deeply troubled pasts to have a “happy childhood” and help them, as an old saying states: “Always remember you are braver than you think, stronger than you seem, and loved more than you know.” 

Over time the children became instrumental in helping the adults relate these words to themselves!  Here specific needs, deficits, or challenges did not become the prominent focus of intervention nor was there a hierarchy or top-down chain of command. Everyone in the neighborhood became experts in meeting one of the most important human needs—the need for daily connections with others who see, know, value, and love us—a need many of us found difficult to meet while living with COVID 19 and a need these past nine months have taught us is the very foundation of intervention. This need when unmet, left us all vulnerable.

As we work to make social interventions stronger and more humane, now is the time to truly value these social connections and the contributions of those with whom we make them. Incorporating them into social service systems will require thinking outside the box of what is and what has been; but nothing I believe is more important if we truly are going to be able to make a difference not only in the lives of those most vulnerable, but in all of our lives. We can’t thank COVID 19 for much, but in 2021 we may find a little grace by thanking it for this age-old, yet new understanding. 

The Path Forward

I began to write the story of Hope Meadows almost three years ago. Now, as I write the first blog for Neighbors: The Power of the People Next Door, the president of the United States is in Walter Reed Hospital, having contracted the pandemic virus that has changed the course of human activity across the world. The book I was outlining thirty-six months ago has evolved into a story about what might be an antidote—if not to coronavirus—to the isolation and lack of unity we experience in our culture today.

My book, I’ll admit, is at least one part memoir, the story of my profound sadness and feelings of helplessness as I watched so many people—many of them children—abandoned and in pain. I think many of you, whether you are impacted in a personal or a professional way, can relate. Perhaps you are the parent of a person living with disability, or part of a family in crisis or marginalized by race or poverty. Perhaps you are a caregiver for elders with dementia, or one of so many seniors in our country who are isolated in your own home for lack of mobility and meaningful community connection. Perhaps you are someone compelled to make a difference by your work in housing, medical and mental health, social services, nonprofits. No matter—the impulse to create meaningful change arises from the heart.

I was lucky. The end result of my journey to make a difference resulted in a number of communities that changed lives and offered solutions. With this, I experienced joy and a profound sense of accomplishment as I began to reflect on the innate goodness of the many generations of ordinary people who came to call Hope Meadows home. These people, through genuine kindness, decency, and compassion, gave me hope in the power of the people next door to heal and unite us. I lived in the middle of that hope for over a decade.

I wrote Neighbors for you. It is not a technical manual but a practical one for the soul of citizens and leaders who do the day-to-day work of building and operating and living within intentional neighboring communities. It is also for policy makers and social service providers. It takes a while to move from direct experience, story-telling and lessons learned to real and proven solutions, and I hope my book offers some of that to you. In this blog series, we hope to continue the conversations, questions and creative solutions that will embody intentional neighboring into planning, policy and purpose. We can only do this together, forgoing competition in favor of the interdependence of collaboration. I hope you’ll join along.