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Family and Divorce – at the Price Hill Rec Center

One morning walking home from working out at the Price Hill Recreation Center (the Rec) I ran into someone I recognized.  Turns out it was Miss Carlettia, a child care provider at the Rec who I had seen many times but had never met.  (Funny how chance encounters in a different context force us to actually have a conversation with someone new.)

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I asked how things were going at the Price Hill Rec now that kids were out of school.  Tears welled-up as she told me that she had been fired after spending 15 years of her life benefiting from, volunteer at, or working for her the Rec.  Over the next hour I learned about Carlettia’s life (very stressful) why she was fired (likely for “good cause”), and how government social services organizations might do better for their communities if both residents and employees are seen as “family”.

Seeing local residents as part of “the Rec family” is the easy part, as politicians have been pushing “good customer service” for years.  Carlettia began her relationship with the Rec as a 20-year-old single mother looking to escape the street drug culture.  She showed up every day to eat, meet people, attend A.A. meetings, and utilize the on-site child care.  Carlettia says that the Rec literally saved her life, and I believe her.

After five years getting stable and becoming part of the Rec family, Carlettia was so grateful that she became a volunteer doing anything they asked—cleaning up, cooking, clerical work, etc.  But her real gift was for child care.  I personally witnessed the love she brought to those kids, and the joy she created during their activities.  Those kids loved her like a mother, and they yapped like puppies at her feet when she walked in the door: “Miss Carlettia! Miss Carlettia! Miss Carlettia!”

After five years as a volunteer, Carlettia’s devotion helped her become a paid child-care staff person.  She loved her job, worked hard, and never called-in sick. She bought treats for the kids from her own income.  And she continued to go above and beyond her role, volunteering at weekend events and working off-the-clock to help with other programs.  She continued to do the dirty work full time staff ignored, like cleaning toilets, and even cleaned her boss’ home on several occasions (for free!).  None of this bothered Carlettia, though, because the Rec was her home, those kids were family, and doing favors for a boss was expected (“Right?” she asked).

But the feeling of family quickly evaporated; work tends to feel like work, especially in big institutions under financial pressures.  In the weeks prior to my conversation with Carlettia, I had noticed that the entire staff was on-edge, from receptionists to program directors, as senior management had “come from downtown to tighten the screws, and they don’t know anything about this place,” according to the older gentleman who supervises the weight room.  And these aren’t P&G trained managers who “steward the assets of our people”; almost every interaction I saw between senior management and staff felt demeaning to the staff person.  Sure, work is work, but to a person like Carlettia who gives her heart and soul because the Rec is family, this atmosphere slowly killed her spirit.

Paradoxically, the harder management tried to professionalize the place, the more “family” squabbles arose between staff.  In a sense, every workplace has family-like dynamics and drama; good work cultures identify those issues and tackle them head-on.  In a place like the Rec, though, managers aren’t trained to deal with these deep emotional issues and back stories, so things tend to fester over time.

With Carlettia, it was her relationship with the Alpha male athletic director, a former semi-pro basketball player beloved by the boys who play ball but feared by everyone else.  Like Carlettia, he brings his kids to the Rec every day. Unlike her, his kids get free reign because they are children of royalty whereas Carlettia and her kids get nit-picked for the same behavior.

For instance, her son was recently banned from coming to the Rec when she isn’t working because he asked several times in one day to use the phone to call his mom.  Carlettia didn’t see him in the morning because she was apartment hunting, and he was worried.  And though many kids use those phones, Carlettia’s boy was not only banned from the phone but was told he could only come to the Rec when his mother was working—even though he leaves school at 11 a.m. because of behavioral issues and Carlettia has no money to pay for a babysitter (the Rec was her child care for years).

Typical work issues like this (at least for part-time, low-wage employees like Carlettia) were landing on a very atypical personal life.  Carlettia’s teenage daughter is dabbling in the Price Hill drug/party scene, she supports a 50-something disabled brother, and they live hand to mouth with no credit to get them through tight months.

And most importantly, Carlettia has bipolar/ADHD that often leads to emotional outbursts. Ah, now I’ve gotten to it, you say:  Carlettia isn’t some innocent victim of a big system and bad managers, she’s mentally ill and readily admits that she is a challenge to her boss and fellow employees.  The most recent outburst happened when Carlettia got into an argument with her boss over her son’s banishment.  Carlettia has amazing self-awareness, so in the middle of the argument she said, “I’ve got to take a break before I say something stupid!” before walking outside to call a friend and vent.  Of course the boss followed her outside, heard her cursing, and fired her for the “swearing on the job”.  When I asked some of her former colleagues why she was fired, the general answer was “She had plenty of chances, and this was the last straw.”

But why does someone in Carlettia’s situation ever have to run out of chances?  Isn’t the point of social work to stand by someone until they are ready to change?  And if not, where do the most vulnerable get a job where they can feel good about making a real contribution (by the way, human service as servant leadership is the state-of-the-art in social service).  Carlettia doesn’t have many other employment opportunities, especially jobs she loves, where she contributes her gifts, and that are local.  This isn’t just another “job” to her—it’s work that sustains her—and she doesn’t have to spend an hour or two on the bus every day.

But the Rec also loses out on a local employee who really does see her job as taking care of family.  Carlettia knows all of these kids outside of the Rec (one teen stopped to see if she was OK as she talked with me, crying), and no outside professional can ever provide the care of a family member.  Now when I pass by the child care room, I see fewer smiles and a lot less fun and love; Miss Carlettia is surely missed.

I get that every business or institution needs rules, and that some employees aren’t right for the job.  But the unwritten covenant of every rec center is that we are all each other’s keeper; that this neighborhood is a family that cares for all its members.  Losing a local employee is a lost opportunity to serve and transform a neighbor in the most intimate way—by standing by them in times of greatest need; by working through the inter-personal crap that is at the core of all personal growth (the kind of growth that weans someone from traditional social services).  In other words, it’s community-as-family that best sustains people, not professionalized services.

In other words, a recreation center has a unique calling as the heart and soul of a geographic system of community support—it serves and builds local community.  To provide jobs to locals is hugely transformative for both the employee and “customers” because it geometrically deepens the local system of connections and mutual support.  For the poor, geography already defines their support structure, and recreation centers are already part of that infrastructure.  Now we need to see geography as the inclusive boundaries for family.

What I’m saying is that if recreation centers, or any human service agency, want to truly help their local community, they need to treat both their customers and employees as family members.  Customers treated as family members are more likely to become volunteers like Carlettia, and employees as family members will continue to grow even when they screw up.

Only families can handle the toughest situations because families forgive—and continue to stand by—their most wayward children because there is no other option.  For people like Carlettia (and those in even tougher situations), the Rec is already their family.  Now the Rec is abandoning her because she has trouble fitting into a “professional” work culture that doesn’t consider employees as part of their service portfolio.

Managing the line between employee and family is tough—but doable.  Our daughter is a recovering heroin addict who eventually stopped being able to fit into our household structure, so we said that she couldn’t live with us when she turned 18.  But we continued to support her within the boundaries we set because families find a way.  Similarly, the Rec could have found a way to set some boundaries with Carlettia to minimize the impact of her behavioral challenges while still finding a way to receive her gifts—to the benefit of both Carlettia and the children who loved her.

My friend Mike Maloney once said that Urban Appalachian social services were so effective because the “social workers” were really neighbors who stood by those in need no matter what.  Of course this is the essence of A Careless Society by John McKnight:  that unless professionals take on the perspective of family, they will never be able to help those who can’t help themselves.

The bonus is that when a social service becomes a family support structure, those who once benefitted can pay it forward to their new family members. Transforming a system into a neighborhood family births an unrelenting cycle of love and support.  Fittingly, these services need the gifts of people like Carlettia:  unrelenting commitment to stand by people no matter what.  As an employee, the system can dump Carlettia and her gifts; as a family, her gifts are embraced and everyone in the neighborhood benefits.

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