Through the Darkest Night
David Jackson ‘10
Our Brother’s Place
David Jackson ‘10
DPCS Reflection Paper
Meet Dave, the Intern!
My Internship at Our Brother’s Place
Our Brother’s Place (OBP) is a men’s homeless shelter operated by the Bethesda Project. The Bethesda Project is an organization, which helps the homeless people in Philadelphia, PA find places to work and homes to live. It is a group whose primary commitment is to establish environments where homeless people can have their needs resolved by a community of compassionate and hard-working people (Our 1). I initially decided to intern with a homeless shelter in October 2007. I had a relatively easy application and interview process with both Dartmouth Partners in Community Service (DPCS) and the Bethesda Project. I was approved for my internship and given a $2,950 grant from DPCS within six weeks.
I started my internship on Monday, January 14, 2008. I was an intern working under Arnold Shedrick, the former supervisor of the dayroom at OBP. I was a little overwhelmed on my first day because I did not know what to expect from my internship because January 14th was actually my first time meeting my supervisor. We had attempted to meet two previous times but both were unsuccessful. However, I was given a brief tour of the shelter during my Thanksgiving holiday by a dayroom staff member.
On my first day, I was given another tour of the shelter and met most of the staff. I later learned that the shelter was built completely by volunteers. It is located at 907 Hamilton Street in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia. The building consists of two stories. On the first floor, there are offices located near the entrance to the shelter. These offices are where the administrative staff, counselors, and security are stationed. A conference room and a computer lab are also near the front on the first floor. In the middle of the first floor is where the guests and staff bathrooms, the laundry room, and the kitchen are all located. And, situated in the rear is the dayroom. The dayroom is the main area of OBP. It is where the guests spend most of their time at the shelter. Group activities such as card playing, dominoes, and religious services take place in the dayroom. It is also the place where the guests eat their meals. And, up to seventy-three guests sleep in the dayroom during the night. The second floor is primarily used as sleeping quarters for seventy-seven guests.
On my first day, I was not given too many tasks, and most of my tasks did not come from my supervisor but from another dayroom staff member. These tasks also involved some administrative work. I spent most of my first week working with Diamond, Jerome, Lester, and Rodney. They were some of the dayroom staff members at the time. Arnold’s intentions were for me to spend the majority of my internship working in the dayroom office performing administrative tasks. He thought that the purpose of my internship was for me to gain a better understanding of the social work field. I explained to him and Rebecca, the community life assistant at the Bethesda Project, during our first meeting together that my internship required me to spend the majority of my time doing hands-on community service work. Arnold had not been made aware of this, but he was willing to allow me to do more community service work.
I started to perform tasks such as helping with the breakfast and lunch lines by marking tickets and taking a count of all the people who were being served food. I helped clean tables, the refrigerator, and the microwave in the dayroom office with disinfectant. I would help organize the guests’ photo identification cards in the file cabinets. I would help administer medication to the guests, with the supervision of a dayroom staff member. I often sorted through a book containing the guests’ Purchase of Services (P.O.S.). These forms allowed the guests to sleep overnight at the shelter, and the book that contained them needed to be updated on a daily basis.
On some occasions, I would accompany Jerome as he made rounds of the shelter. Rounds have to be made every hour to make sure that guests are not sleeping in their beds on the second floor during the day unless they have special permission for reasons such as illness. Rounds are also made in the bathrooms and other enclosed areas so that guests are not enabled to use these facilities as places to use illegal substances. OBP is a “wet shelter,” meaning that guests who are currently using drugs and/or alcohol are allowed to stay there as long as they do not use them at the shelter. It was not uncommon for security guards or dayroom staffers to find drug paraphernalia inside the shelter or around its premises.
Changes At Our Brother’s Place
Arnold’s last day as my supervisor and the dayroom supervisor was Thursday, January 31, 2008. Although we did not have a lot of time together, Arnold helped me learn about drug addiction in those few weeks. Arnold was a former drug addict for nearly thirty-five years. He credited his wife and his faith for helping him to stay clean for over ten years. I did a good amount of research on drug addiction and substance abuse while working for Arnold.
He gave me an example of a man who often volunteered to clean the bathrooms at the shelter and wanted just a little token of appreciation. Usually, Arnold would give a volunteer such as this man a gift card to a movie theater or convenience store with money given by the shelter. However, this man currently has substance abuse issues, and Arnold knew that if he gave this man a gift card, the man would probably sell it on the street for money to buy drugs. Because so many of the guests at OBP are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, staff members have to be sensitive with their interactions with the guests. This is especially true after the first of the month. During the first few days of every month, many of the guests would receive government assistance. The average payment a shelter guest would receive was $102 per month, but some of the men would spend the bulk of their money or drugs and alcohol. The shelter would be practically empty during this time, regardless of the weather conditions. However, when the men returned, they were penniless and irritable since they were coming off a high.
When Arnold resigned his position as dayroom supervisor, Spencer King and Prentiss Vann took over as co-dayroom supervisors. Rev. Wesley Garrett, the site administrator at OBP, took over as my supervisor. Rev. Garrett was opposed to me spending my entire internship working solely in the dayroom and its office. He felt that I would come away from my experience with a negative view of OBP if I did not see the shelter as a whole instead of one of its many components.
On many days, I was able to work at the security desk with Mark Wright, the security supervisor, and Preston Davis, one of the security officers. The security desk is essentially the main office at OBP. All of the phone calls, deliveries and packages, and guests pass by the security desk. The security officers are responsible for making rounds of the interior and exterior of the shelter to make sure that the building is safe, guests are in areas where they can be supervised, and drug and alcohol paraphernalia are not on or in front of the premises. They also search each guest upon them entering the building because guests are not allowed to bring weapons, drugs, alcohol, and in some cases food into the shelter. I wore gloves while working at the security desk because the officers often get sick since they have to touch the guest and their belongings, which may have been in an unsanitary environment. I did not actually touch the guests, but I did handle their possessions.
I was also able to work in the kitchen on a few occasions. Its supervisor, Charles White, heads the kitchen staff. One day at breakfast, I served the guests fruit and milk to go along with their oatmeal, bacon, and bagels. Later that day, I helped Charles cleaned their industrial oven’s enormous-sized oven racks, with a special cleaning solution to cut through the built-up grease. I peeled hard-boiled eggs for a tuna salad. Sometimes, I served soup and helped prepared salads during lunchtime. I also stocked casseroles and desserts in the freezers and refrigerators. The casseroles were prepared and donated to the shelter by ordinary people through the Bethesda Project’s “Casserole Network.”
I worked with Maria Rodriguez, one of the Life Counselors at OBP. The life counselors are similar to social workers and case managers. They often play the role of psychologist as well. Each guest who lives at the shelter is assigned one of the six life counselors on staff. Robert Hayes, the Social Services supervisor oversees the life counselors. Maria showed me how the HMIS program operates. It is a citywide Internet database, which tracks the Philadelphia homeless population, and their shelter visits. The life counselors also give their guests a goal sheet for what they need to accomplish in order to get out of the shelter system. The guests are also supposed to pay shelters fees and give part of their savings to a savings coordinator to enable them to rent a room or an apartment and return to a more traditional living environment.
I helped out Selina Page and Nakia Heard in the Our Brothers’ at Work office located on the second floor of OBP. They help their clients, who are both shelter guests and men off the streets of Philadelphia create résumés and find employment. Selina also teaches a class to help the men transition into the working world. I created packets of information for the clients in her class. These packets contained forty-one pages of information, which are supposed to enlighten the men on how to make good decisions in the workplace and in life. I was also able to sit in on one of her class sessions. I shared my Dartmouth experiences with the class, and the class shared with me their experiences of what it is like to be homeless, jobless, and to lack an education.
I also assisted Mark Wilkins in the laundry room. The laundry room workers wash the guests’ clothing, sheets, and towels on a daily basis. Guests are allowed to have one basket of clothing washed at a time according to schedule. I did not come in contact with the guests’ dirty laundry because it is sometimes contaminated with bodily fluids and waste. I organized shelves and folded sheets that were donated to OBP from the Four Seasons Hotel. I assisted guests who needed new clothing from the storage basement. It was difficult to find pants that fit the guests because there was a shortage of pants at the time.
Guests who also wish to shower get a clean towel, piece of soap, and a small amount of shampoo from the laundry as well. I distributed these items to the guests. The majority of the toiletries for the guests’ use are donated to the shelter. These items have to be rationed in order for them to be distributed to as many guests as possible. When a bar of soap is donated, Mark or another laundry worker would cut the bar into about four pieces for a guests’ one-time use. Shampoo is poured out of its bottle and into smaller tablespoon-sized cups. And, a stick of deodorant is shared by all of the guests until it is entirely used.
Rev. Garrett and I even spent a half a night working the night shift toward the end of my internship. I worked with Prentiss Vann, the dayroom co-supervisor, and John Carter, a dayroom staff member. They showed me how the Purchase of Services that I had organized in the mornings were first collected from the guests during the evenings. It was also the first time that I saw the dayroom converted into sleeping quarters. All of the tables and chairs in the dayroom were replaced with seventy-three army cots. I was used to seeing the dayroom as a boisterous and vibrant place, but at night it was quiet and rather serene with everyone in the room sleeping. It was just a little malodorous because most of the men had their socks and shoes off.
The staff at OBP is a diverse group of adults all working for a greater cause. That cause is to see the men at the shelter uplift themselves into a better future. The majority of the staff clearly enjoys what they do for a living. One certainly does not get involved in outreach and social services for the financial security. Many of the workers were formerly homeless or recovering addicts themselves. Some have also served time in prison. The staff members are similar to many of the men and women featured in David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor. Although the staff is paid more than the state’s minimum wage, their salaries definitely do not earn enough money for the stresses that working at a men’s homeless shelter can create.
I was friendly and open with most of the staff. I talked extensively with Michael Polk, the housekeeping supervisor, even though I did not have the chance to work with him. He is a very spiritual man who has a daughter currently awaiting her college acceptance letters. Yes, the entire staff took me under their wings and made sure that I was comfortable in the environment and allowed me to assist them whenever necessary.
I was a little intimidated at meeting the guests my first day at OBP. There were only a few guests at the shelter who were not more than ten years older than me. I was concerned that the guests would not want to listen to my advice or directions. But, the guests were actually very supportive of me and the other college volunteers who would spent time at the shelter. I did not have many problems with guests. A few of the guests felt comfortable enough with me to tell me their life stories and how they ended up living in a shelter.
One guest ended up living at the shelter with a few of his former roommates after they fell behind on their mortgage and lost their home in Detroit. He is a very friendly man and spoke to me every morning. He would also run errands for the staff and deliver them coffee and breakfast from the nearby diner. Another guest was originally from Puerto Rico and had previously stayed at the shelter ten years earlier prior to his current stay. He had a history of substance abuse problems. Before I ended my internship, he had found a job as a security guard and planned to leave the shelter soon afterward. A guest who was close to my age had recently moved into the shelter because he wanted to get away from the life he and his girlfriend lived. They were both drug users, and he believed that he was enabling his girlfriend and her peers to take advantage of him. He was looking for a job through Our Brother’s at Work at the conclusion of my internship.
Last Day of Internship
Thursday, March 13, 2008, marked my final full-time day at OBP. I spent the day working in the dayroom with Jerome and Rodney. I performed my usual tasks of putting the list of volunteers on the volunteer database, which is located on one of the computers in the dayroom office. I also helped Diamond clean out some cabinets in the dayroom office. And, I spent some time assisting Rev. Garrett with filing in his office. But most importantly, I spent the morning talking with guests about my experiences as an intern and how I was looking forward to returning to Dartmouth and continuing my studies.
One conversation in particular I had with a guest touched me personally. This guest, a man in his early forties, told me that he was surprised that I lasted two months as an intern at OBP. He thought that I would leave after maybe two weeks of putting up with the “drama and nonsense” that comes with working in this type of environment. The guest also said, “seeing you come to work everyday ready to work and knowing that after you left, you had big plans to finish college and go on to a career in journalism or law, has inspired me to do better.” I believe that it was at this moment when I realized that I had accomplished something important during my internship. It was the fact that my service had made a difference in the lives of others.
After taking more than fifty photos of the staff and murals on the dayroom walls, I sat with Rev. Garrett and Tony Medwid, the Director of Community Life at the Bethesda Project to discuss my overall experiences. I told them that I was extremely satisfied with my internship experience. I also told them how I enjoyed working with the staff and guests and that I would inform other Dartmouth students looking for volunteer work about OBP. Later that afternoon, I was given a goodbye party by the staff and treated to pizza, soda, and a cake, which read Thank You David, in green and white icing.
At the party, several of the staff members gave a few words of thanks to me. I was very impressed by the Operations Manager at OBP, Diana Coleman’s words of encouragement. She spoke very highly of me, and I did not realize that I had made such a good impression on her since I only worked in her office twice. Selina told me that she was also very proud of my accomplishments and spoke highly of me to her two sons. Rev. Garrett mentioned that I was a hard-working intern and that I am always welcomed to visit OBP in the future. I was also given a thank-you card, which was signed by most of the staff. And, Tony presented we with the Bethesda medal for my service. The medal has a religious image on the front and reads, Through The Darkest Night I Am With You, on the back.
My final day at the OBP was Friday, March 14, 2008. The day consisted of me saying my final goodbyes to the staff and a few of the guests. Most of the guests were not there because a building clean-up day took place that day, which requires that the guests not be present at the shelter for most of the day.
I kept a journal throughout my internship at OBP. I recorded in my journal everyday. I wrote down my work duties for an entire day, as well as personal life stories that guests and staff members told me. I feel very blessed and honored to have volunteered at OBP. Although my internship got off to a rocky start, it quickly improved as I found my place around the shelter. I found that whenever there was little for me to execute, Rev. Garrett or myself would quickly find another area of the shelter where my labor could be of good use.
I do not regret the time I spent at the shelter. I found the service to be extremely rewarding. The staff is a great group of people all working to ensure the good and well being of the shelter and its guests. Rev. Garrett was also a great supervisor who put a lot of time and effort to make sure that I did not have any problems at OBP. I also thank Tony Medwid and Rebekah Rosenfeld for initially getting me involved with OBP and Bethesda. My internship has been an experience that I am proud of and will never forget. I will keep OBP and its community in my thoughts. And, yes I would recommend other Dartmouth students to become involved with Our Brother’s Place and the Bethesda Project.
Our Mission. 2007. Bethesda Project. 24 Oct. 2007. <http://bethesdaproject.org/Bethesda