A career in the caregiving field is a personal one. There are as many unique stories, callings and circumstances as there are professionals in the field. Here is my story:
Communicating Without Words
I began my career as a professional caregiver more than 13 years ago, but to be honest, it wasn’t an intentional choice. I was actually an aspiring opera singer majoring in classical voice performance who needed a night job to match my busy college and audition schedule. The helping fields had residential programs for overnight shifts so I applied. This launched the life-long career that I could never have predicted.
My first job in caregiving was with an organization that served developmentally disabled (profoundly retarded) adults in a group home setting. It was here that I learned my first and most important lesson in caregiving: How to communicate.
Most of the residents there were non-verbal and those who could speak had very limited capacity. I thought, “This is impossible! I won’t be able to instruct them, communicate with them, figure out if they have a headache or other needs. How can I do this?” I learned over the course of two years that communication has very little to do with words and everything to do with establishing relationships and having a desire to communicate.
Effective communication requires only that one or more people have something they want to communicate and that there is another person or more willing to receive the message. Everything else is just a variation in delivery methods and technique. This can come in infinite forms.
This lesson was profound, and I keep learning from it in ways I never imagined now as both a professional caregiver and in my current occupation as a writer. I continuously work to develop a clear message and to find an audience willing to receive that message. When I hit barriers, I look to my past for creative ways to communicate and find a willing audience. It’s not always easy, but it is always possible.
Working With Troubled Youth
My next two jobs were as an admissions screener for the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center and a detention screener for the Pasco Juvenile Assessment Center. Young people arrested in Pinellas and Pasco counties came through me during their process in the juvenile justice system.
The lesson I learned there had everything to do with compassion and the cold, hard realities of injustice that can be inherent in the justice system. Many of these kids were not just “bad seeds”, as I’ve heard them described from families and law enforcement. They were deeply troubled.
In one instance, there was a boy about 16-years-old who, over the course of two weeks, was brought in repeatedly on increasingly serious and eventually violent charges. We’ll call him “Tommy.” When I looked at Tommy’s record, I saw something alarming. Prior to those two weeks, he had no record. Literally, all of a sudden, he became very troubled. It was clear that Tommy was acting out, a reaction to something going on in his life. This was not a bad kid, but rather a kid going through something he didn't know how to handle.
Once I recognized this, I contacted Tommy’s family again, and I asked questions outside of my usual screening script. I wanted to know what could have triggered these new behaviors from Tommy. What was he going through? What was he reacting to so violently?
I learned from this simple three-minute phone call that the boy was being cared for by his disabled grandmother, and the grandmother was going to be admitted to a nursing home with no chance of returning to care for Tommy in the future.
The bigger problem was that no one had been able to tell Tommy what would happen to him, with no family to care for him and no money set aside for his care. Tommy was feeling lost, abandoned and terrified about his future and was erupting because of it. The closer he got to his grandmother's admittance date, the more explosive Tommy became.
This is a normal reaction to a highly abnormal situation. While it’s explainable and even partially understandable, though, Tommy now has a significant juvenile record that includes multiple violent felonies. There are real victims left in the wake of his actions who want justice served for this teen.
I did what I could to write-up the situation and my discovery in my recommendations to the court, and I was assured the Department of Juvenile Justice representative, who appeared in court with Tommy, would make sure his situation was put on record so that he could get the services and support he needed. Mostly, I hoped that someone would just talk with Tommy and let him know what would happen to him next. As Tommy expressed, this was the source of his nightmares - his unknown future.
Champion for Caregiving Causes
The next chapter my caregiving career took me to working on the administration end of the spectrum in nonprofit development and grant writing. It was here that I felt I was truly using my talents of writing and relationship-building along with my uniquely-honed skills of communication to bring funding and attention to the field. I am certain that I will champion this mission until the end of my life. The most important lesson learned is that community and family, however you choose to define those words, are everything, and we need each other to survive. Giving back matters.
How You Can Be Involved
If you are interested in becoming a professional caregiver, there are multiple ways to gain the education and experience you need to make that dream happen. Volunteering, advocacy efforts and finding ways give back to your community are great ways to start.
Here are some resources to help you find local chapters in your community:
- The United Way
- The Salvation Army
- Habitat for Humanity
- The American Red Cross
- Florida Coalition for the Homeless
Here are educational resources for those interested in the caregiving field: