When I Put On These Shoes…

By Wendy Liscow, Program Officer

Worn out shoes

When I put on these shoes this morning I knew they were going to be painful, and that I was in for a tough day. The end of the day delivered.

I was at my wits end as I tried to get dinner ready. My little one was crying non-stop with a fever, her sister needed help with her homework and her brother couldn’t seem to settle down, giving new meaning to “bouncing off the walls.” I could have handled this if my husband had come home after work. Instead he went to the bar to forget his own day from hell. He had a run-in with his boss and was fortunate not to lose his job, but it was going to be uncomfortable going back to work tomorrow.

He was still pretty worked up when he got home and realized he had forgotten his keys.

I had just gotten the kids quiet in bed when I connected that the persistent ringing, ringing, ringing was the doorbell and rushed to let him in. I don’t really remember what I said, but it clearly wasn’t the right thing. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground with a boot kicking my ribs and a fist smashing my nose. By the time the door slammed on his exit, the kids were up and screaming.

I’d been pushed before when liquor and stress were involved, but nothing like this. I never imagined I would be sitting in an emergency hospital room at Paterson’s St. Joseph’s Hospital with my kids waiting with a social worker while my broken nose is set and I await x-rays. My mind is racing. I need to do whatever I can to make sure my kids are safe. I don’t have any family to turn to, just this judge the hospital staff says I can speak with through a teleconference system (the only one in the state, so I am lucky I came here). The judge will talk to me via video, look at my bruises and decide if I can get a temporary restraining order. I don’t have to go to the courthouse. But if I get a temporary restraining order or file charges, my husband might only get angrier. Plus he really didn’t mean it. He is just under a lot of pressure.

I have got to get these shoes off; they are killing me!

I kick off the shoes and immediately everything returns to normal.  Almost.  The physical pain is gone, but a new pain, born from empathizing with someone who is trapped in a horrible situation needing to make difficult decisions still remains. I’ve just removed the shoes of Miriam, the subject of the simulation exercise I participated in last week as part of Leadership New Jersey’s class of 2010 and the two-day seminar on Human Services and Health Care that took place in Paterson and New Brunswick. This is just one example of the Leadership New Jersey’s powerful use of experiential education.

Leadership New Jersey Class of 2010
Leadership New Jersey, Class of 2010

My Leadership New Jersey team (there were four others with four different case studies) was given the scenario I described above and sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital to meet with an Emergency Room physician and a social worker to figure out what type of treatment and support was available. These amazing and dedicated hospital angels were the first line of defense for my kids and me. They patched me up, treated my daughter, and connected me with nonprofit services to help find a temporary space to stay and guidance on how to deal with my situation.

My team then went over to the courthouse to meet with a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Passaic County Family Courts and watch him try a restraining order case. Watching this case unfold, wearing Miriam’s shoes, I knew it was going to be hard to go through with the final restraining order because I couldn’t imagine standing up to my husband in court. This was serious life and death business for both of us. He might lose his job, or what if someone thought I couldn’t take care of the kids by myself and try to take them away?  All sorts of unhappy outcomes kept bombarding my resolve.

The goals of the seminar were to increase awareness of the structure, capabilities and limitations of social service and health care delivery in New Jersey, experience what it is like to seek the assistance of social service agencies, offer opportunities to think about ways to improve social service delivery, and improve understanding of the social and economic realities facing New Jersey cities.

You can talk about these issues all day long in the comfort of a classroom and never get a true taste of how complex the world of human services is. I don’t assume for one moment that our day-long exercise even began to approximate the full realities of living in poverty or being a victim of domestic abuse or countless other challenges that make one vulnerable in America. But there was no better way to quickly immerse ourselves in the issues involved in creating a safety net for those children, individuals, and families who are struggling in our society.

The exercise underscored how much New Jersey’s safety net system is dependent on the nonprofit sector to deliver services in order to function. Government establishes laws and outlines protections, but it is nonprofit service providers who make the system work. It was equally clear that these nonprofit organizations are already stretched to their limits, and more and more people are in need of their services every day. With state budget cuts, and reduced philanthropic and corporate support, it is likely that growing numbers of individuals will fall through the expanding holes in society’s safety net. This is the reason why the pain continued even after the shoes were removed.

What gave me hope was talking with so many of my fellow Leadership New Jersey class members who are working in human services and fighting the brave fight every day. They wrestle disillusionment by keeping their focus on the individuals they are trying to help.

It was also great to hear from the two impressive women who are leading our state‘s Departments of Human Services, and Children and FamiliesJennifer Velez and Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, respectively. The two commissioners (both Leadership New Jersey graduates) spoke candidly about the challenges they and their departments face, their priorities, and even a bit of their frustrations of not being able to do everything they would like to do, especially in the area of prevention. They realize it isn’t a perfect system and want to use every tool in their toolbox to improve it and help more individuals.

Great Falls of Paterson
Great Falls of Paterson

Another boost of optimism came from meeting the President of Paterson’s New Jersey Community Development Corporation, Bob Guarasci, and around twenty youth from the Paterson Youth Council, Youth Build Program and The Great Falls Youth Corps. NJCDC focuses on neighborhood revitalization, youth development, education, affordable  housing, and the preservation of the Great Falls Historic District. In fact The Dodge Foundation recently made a grant to support the Great Falls Youth Corps and their partnership with the National Park Service to help launch the new Great Falls National Park in Paterson. Talking with these kids and hearing their thoughts on creating a brighter future for Paterson and their families rekindled hope.

So I just want to take a moment to thank all those individuals who work hard every day to build a safety net for children and adults who are struggling in our society.  Although your work is invisible to most, you give people hope when they most need it and change their lives for the better.

Shoe photo courtesy Asif Akbar
Leadership New Jersey photo courtesy of Leadership New Jersey
Great Falls of Paterson photo courtesy Gianfranco Archimede

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2 Responses to When I Put On These Shoes…

  1. You are correct in noting that hearing about such experiences cannot match experiencing them, however, superficially or temporarily. I just finished spending the past 4 days sleeping in 3 different places while we awaited restoration of our electricity.

    (My husband was in post-hip-replacement rehab and, of all days, was released yesterday – when we had no home to go to! We were very touched by the kindness of the social workers who offered to extend his stay an extra day or two, but after 5 weeks of “incarceration,” nothing would have kept him there. )

    Even having no fear of being out on the street, I could not believe how homeless I felt. Each day I’d take my tote bag and assorted other items and, having no place to go because my place of employment was also powerless, kind of drifted through the day, not quite sure of where I’d be sleeping – a small sense of walking in others’ shoes that will remain with me for a long time.

    Today we are home at last, and I have never been more grateful.

  2. […] was the day of my colleague Wendy Liscow’s blog entry, “When I Put On These Shoes,” which I read admiringly.  As part of Leadership New Jersey’s Class of 2010, Wendy had spent […]

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