Tagged ‘welcoming‘

The Right Answer is Yes

The agency director said, “We try to teach our people here that the right answer is yes.”  I was so grateful to hear this my eyes teared up.  No joke. I want to put THE RIGHT ANSWER IS YES on T-shirts and coffee mugs.  Maybe make a magnetic sign for my car.  Rent the psychedelic billboard on I-94 West and have the morning exodus wondering “What does that mean?”  “Say yes to what?”

Can you help me?  Will you help me?  Can I be helped?  Am I worth helping?

This is my rookie year in actually trying to help a human being maneuver the human service system.  Yeah, yeah, I have a lot of years of experience talking about systems – analyzing, critiquing, drawing new boxes and arrows on flowcharts.  Until April of this year, I had zero experience trying to get anyone services except the people in my own family, an endeavor made ridiculously simple with health insurance and a credit card.

This is what I’ve learned so far this year:

  • A person’s problems can disqualify him/her from getting help even if the problems are the reason he/she needs help.
  • Cynicism is a cancer that keeps helpers from helping and the needy from trusting help.
  • People who have a life that is a jumble of failures and mishaps won’t suddenly be cured when they walk in the door of a human services agency.
  • Agency staff often seem to think  they should parent the adults seeking help.
  • People who feel judged and diminished will flee from help.

So when my colleague, Joe Volk, head of Community Advocates, made this statement to me yesterday, it made me really happy.  First of all, it meant I wasn’t just a naive little do-gooder who couldn’t read the scorecard right.  All the barriers and rules and ways to exclude people with messed up lives from getting help really is bullshit.  And, secondly, and more importantly, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Years ago, I was at a conference and some motivational guy uttered these parting words:  “People are hurting.  It doesn’t have to be that way. We need to do something.”  And, of course, I thought, rolling my eyes, “Oh brother.”  But it’s stuck with me all this time.  Because I believe it to be true.  A lot of what I’ve seen these past few months — in my volunteer work and my professional life — has made my eyes cross and my heart ache.

I don’t believe it has to be that way.  A few weeks ago, I talked to some service providers about how they selected people for their programs.  Several providers told me about intake criteria, especially noting those things that would disqualify someone from getting help.  It was clear they’d spent a lot of time carefully constructing these barriers to make sure they got the right kind of customer in their program.  The last guy said, “No, we just take the next person in line, we don’t screen out.  The next person’s in until it looks like it won’t work for him.”  That guy gets a T-shirt and a coffee mug.

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Hello. Can I Come In?

For years, I’ve complained about human services agencies with locked front doors.  Agencies that require you to push the little doorbell, then talk to the receptionist, then get buzzed in, and then sign in.  One agency I frequent even asks me to include my license plate # on the sign-in sheet.  When they let me in, it’s not clear what criteria I met or failed to meet.  Did I not look dangerous?  Did they assume I didn’t have a cute pink pearl-handled revolver in my big Coach bag (like I even know what a revolver is….although, happily, I do know what a Coach bag is).  So agencies are worried about security — after 9/11, everyone got intense about security so I always attributed it to that and shrugged, oh well.

A dear colleague of mine, Ramon Wagner, had a completely different approach.  He talked all the time about front porches and how agencies had to sit on their front porches (figuratively) to understand the world and their place in it.  He didn’t believe in locked doors and, to this day, Community Advocates, the agency he founded, is a walk-in place. Stop in any day and you will see dozens of people in the waiting room who just walked in looking for help.  This is more than just not having a locked door.  Community Advocates, probably without knowing it, was on the cutting edge of a new way of thinking about human services than can be summed up in the word welcoming.

For the past few months, I’ve been assisting the Community Services Branch of the Behavioral Health Division in its efforts to establish a Comprehensive Continuous Integrated System of Care.  Fundamentally, this is about integrated substance abuse and mental health treatment services but, to me, the overarching value in the approach is the concept of welcoming.  Drs. Minkoff and Cline, the primary consultants to Milwaukee County on this effort, explain this concept in an article “Developing Welcoming Systems for Individuals with Co-Occurring Disorders: The Role of the Comprehensive Continues Integrated System of Care Model,” found at

Welcoming is about not having a locked door to anything.  At least as I understand it so far, it means that a troubled person presenting him or herself for help is welcomed, helped and respected.  “You’re in the right place.  We’re glad to see you.”  That’s the message.  Even if a person ends up needing to go to another program with more expertise or somehow can’t qualify for what’s available on-site, the message remains – “it’s good that you’ve decided to seek help and we will help you find it.”  This isn’t just at the front door but throughout an organization.

When people are sick and down, when they feel they’ve lost everything and have no choice but to ask for help, they don’t need locked doors and stern looks.  They need ackknowledgement, a smile, and maybe a nice cup of coffee.  In short, they need to be welcomed.


Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg

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