—by Nicole Clevenger
(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in "Work Is Recovery: True stories of real people who benefit from Supported Employment, the evidence-based practice," a booklet which was published in March 2007. View the free PDF of "Work is Recovery".)
Mentor, OH—Phyllis Wilcox, BA, CPST, TO, is a case manager at NEIGHBORING, a provider of mental health services in Lake County, Ohio. She is the kind of person one hopes for when needing help. To her, clients are real people with real dreams, not just manila folders in a stack on her desk. Phyllis understands that people often need case management during a low point in their lives. She believes that the circumstances of a crisis are temporary, that the picture of the person before her is a mere snapshot in time and not a complete portrait of the person’s identity.
Phyllis is constantly looking for the hidden potential in the people she serves, not just the potential to survive but to thrive. While she ensures her clients get basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, she does not stop there. Her focus is on long-term recovery, which includes education and employment. By assisting people with their goals for work and school, Phyllis helps her clients build a stable foundation for the future.
Take David, for instance, who has been working with Phyllis for over two years. Together, they have achieved what some people thought was impossible. David has schizophrenia, but he and Phyllis refuse to let the diagnosis become his identity. David is a full-time single parent and a college student. He attends classes at a local community college, taking a bus 90 minutes to and from class two days per week. His ultimate goal is to become a paralegal. He currently maintains a 2.5 grade point average and is well on his way to achieving his dream.
Bumps In The Road To Recovery
David’s story becomes even more remarkable when one considers that only two years ago, he was homeless. Back then, when he and Phyllis first met, she helped him find housing. Then, she asked him about his plans for the future. She listened to him, intently, and learned of his dream to work as a paralegal. So they devised a plan together, dividing up the tasks needed to enroll him in school. Phyllis made sure he had all the tasks he was capable of handling.
"My job is not to take over, that’s no good,” Phyllis says. "I want to help people however I can to be more independent. If I did things for people that they are capable of doing for themselves, it would be a disservice.”
The first thing Phyllis and David did was fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Next, they applied for financial assistance from an organization that would hopefully provide additional funding for tuition and books. After some initial paperwork and exams, the organization unfortunately decided that David was not ready for school and declined to help. Phyllis was not discouraged, though. She viewed the situation as a detour instead of a roadblock and discussed with David an alternate plan to secure the money he needed from other sources.
"I was so frustrated,” Phyllis recalls. "I sort of felt like he was getting the run-around. But, ultimately, we did it anyway.”
There was another challenge that David faced which did not disrupt his success. It was a few weeks into his first quarter at school when he discovered that his roommates were using drugs. He decided to protect himself: he decided to find another place to live. Phyllis supported him.
"I was afraid for him,” she admits. "To have to move like that in the middle of your first semester at school? That’s stressful. He handled it very well. Amazing.”
Also during that first year in college, David faced another big challenge. He began a court battle for full custody of his then three-month old son. Single parenthood is difficult for anyone who faces it, and Phyllis knew David would have extra responsibilities, namely managing the symptoms of his mental illness and the demands of his school commitments. Yet, she did not shrink away from the idea. Instead, she supported him in this important personal decision. Phyllis admits she was afraid that the stigma of David’s experience with homelessness would decrease his chances of winning the case.
"People tend to view homelessness as the inability to care for one’s self,” Phyllis laments. "But to go from not having anywhere to live to attending college in a relatively short period of time speaks for itself. This is truly a case of an individual rising to the occasion.”
The judge that heard David’s case agreed that he had proven his self-sufficiency, and in March of 2006, he was granted full custody of his son. That day, Phyllis was by his side—sort of.
She laughs with delight as she recalls the experience. "I dropped David off at court and went scrambling to help him get stuff he needed for the baby. It was such an exciting time.”
Strength in Numbers
In his pursuit of higher education, David has recruited and maintained the help of many people, proving that there is strength in numbers. He has a team of service providers at NEIGHBORING who continue to rally around him: he still sees his therapist and stays in contact with Phyllis, his case manager. In addition, he also receives support from Lake County Job and Family Services (JFS), which pays for daycare for the two days per week that he attends classes. David’s dedication to school has inspired others to rally around him as well. One of his professors has been so impressed with his degree of self-sufficiency and determination that he recently wrote a letter to JFS on David’s behalf. The letter asks JFS to provide support for more daycare hours to accommodate quiet-study time for David. Phyllis and the other service providers at NEIGHBORING did not know about the letter until they received a copy of it. Phyllis was shocked, and extremely pleased.
"School involves more than just getting to class,” Phyllis says. "David needs time to do his homework. He has to take the baby with him if he goes to the library. But he does it. He has a tremendous amount of perseverance.”
Phyllis has no doubt that David will achieve his dream of working as a paralegal. And she looks forward to the day he approaches graduation and begins to work with a supported-employment specialist to find a job.
"It has been such a joy to work with him over the past two-and-a-half years,” she says. "David has excellent follow-through, and he has demonstrated that he can overcome the odds."
The "Work Is Recovery" Stories
Nicole Clevenger, BFA, is a peer consultant at the Ohio SE CCOE, an initiative of the Center for EBPs at Case Western Reserve University. Edited by Paul M. Kubek, director of communications at the Center for EBPs.