Guest blog post written by Katie Kwidzinski, Pathways Co-ordinator, Eden House, Bristol
Eden House is a special place for a number of reasons, each of which I could write an entire blog post about. However there is one particular reason, one particular aspect of Eden House that I have never experienced anywhere else to such an extent, despite working with and in some really effective teams, Criminal Justice organisations and institutions. It’s something I think about often, something my colleagues and I reflect on almost daily, and something that genuinely moves us frequently. Yes, we’re probably a bunch of total softies, but you would be too. Working at Eden House would melt the most cynical of souls.
Why, you ask? Well, let me tell you about something that happened this week.
One of our service users, we’ll call her Emily, arrived on Tuesday morning, feeling a bit down. This is very unusual for Emily, but definitely not unreasonable, given her current situation. Emily, and her children, have been essentially homeless since October. They have been staying in a hostel, a significant distance away from the children’s schools and from their familial and social support networks. Emily is trying valiantly to find them a suitable home; a task which is not easy at the best of times in Bristol, let alone when she is desperately worried about the effect this situation is having on their children, sliding further and further into debt due to transport and storage costs and deeply frustrated at her treatment from an organisation which should be supporting her in this situation, but instead is consistently compounding the difficulties she is experiencing.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to help out much today,” she announced, “I’m not sure how long I’ll stay. I’m really not having a good day.”
Yet, less than an hour later, Emily was helping the facilitator of the Freedom Programme – supporting a group of 20 women to work through extremely sensitive issues relating to domestic abuse and violence that they have experienced, and in some cases, are still experiencing.
When a new member of the group became distressed, Emily discretely took her out of the group for a one-to-one chat, and to reassure her that her emotions were warranted, natural, and completely appropriate in this group. No one would judge her, or pity her. The new service user talked to Emily in a way that she would not have been able to talk to a professional at this stage of a very difficult process. They could identify with each others’ experiences and responses. The service user felt recognised and understood by Emily, and as a result, open to taking advice from her. Emily supported her to talk to the Dual Diagnosis Worker at Eden House, and to stay for Lunch Club in order to get to know some of the other Eden House clients in a more relaxed environment.
The next time I saw Emily, she was helping two of her peers to cook lunch for everyone, while keeping a quiet eye on the new service user. Later, in the monthly service user feedback group, Emily made a number of really helpful suggestions for ways to continually develop our service, and took responsibility for running a weekly Caribbean Cooking Club, and a workshop for styling and taking care of Afro-Caribbean hair. Before leaving for the day, Emily worked with a number of other service users to create posters for a women’s homelessness awareness-raising event we will be attending in February. Despite the fact that she is currently homeless herself, she spent the rest of the day advising another woman who is experiencing housing issues while helping us to prepare for an event with the aim of preventing other women experiencing the very problem she currently has.
While I, and everyone who knows her, would certainly say that Emily is a very special individual, this kind of behaviour is by no means unusual at Eden House. Every day I am genuinely moved by the way that our service users behave towards each other; women, who are going through incredibly difficult situations themselves, extend kindness toward each other time and time again, without thinking twice about it. Whether its making a cup of tea for a new service user who seems a bit nervous and unsure, comforting someone who has come in to the centre in crisis, or just giving someone a hug or a reassuring smile when they’re feeling down; the fact that these gestures are coming from people who have nothing to gain, no agenda, people who can put their own troubles and feelings aside for a minute because they recognise that they might be able to do something to help someone else feel a bit better, well…it’s just magical.
I have always considered our service users to be the greatest asset, the greatest strength, of Eden House. They help each other, and our service, in so many ways, many of which I’m sure they’re unaware of, and they make our jobs deeply fulfilling. Over lunch recently I was chatting to a service user who, like Emily, spends most of her time here helping other women in a variety of ways – making kind and observant comments, cooking for everyone, making new service users feel welcome, and most of all – making people laugh a lot, and I pointed out that we’re really lucky to have her here, she brings a lot to our service. She looked at me, as she so often does, like I’d said something completely ridiculous.
“What are you on about Katie? It’s the staff that make things happen around here. It’s the staff that look after people and support them and help them.”
And so began quite the debate. The service user adamant that everything good comes from the staff, and me trying to convince her of the huge role that they play in the success of Eden House. We both stuck to our guns, but it did get me thinking in a way that I hadn’t before about the staff here. Since starting my job at Eden House in July last year I have been consistent in my opinion that the staff here are really something special, their incredible skill and knowledge matched by their deep level of compassion and commitment to the service users. But, was my thinking, as staff, we’re recruited and trained and paid to do these jobs. We should be very good at them and our service users should expect nothing less. However I don’t think I’d considered before all of the different ways that the skills and attitudes of the staff effect our service users.
I understood that some of the programmes we run help women to recognise, and challenge, certain behaviours that tend to provoke negative consequences. I get that this can reduce the likelihood of them offending. I understand that some of our services help women to increase their sense of confidence and self-esteem, and that this in turn can mean them living happier more pro-social lives. I understand that some of our courses can help women to get qualifications and develop their skills, and that this can empower them and enable them to support themselves financially, and reduce vulnerabilities to future criminal activity. I ‘get’ all of this (which is just as well really, or I might not have a job for much longer), but what I didn’t ‘get’ is that the environment within which we provide these services nurtures the amazing qualities and strengths that these women already have, and encourages them to use these qualities not only to help themselves, but to help each other.
So maybe the service user was right. Maybe the way that we, as staff, ‘operate’ does help to encourage an atmosphere of positivity, kindness and respect. Or maybe the way that the service users treat each other on a daily basis, inspires us to keep ‘upping our game’ – I certainly know that I find it incredibly inspiring, rewarding and heart-warming. Or maybe we shouldn’t try to analyse it too much. Maybe we should just conclude that kindness is infectious, thank our lucky stars, thank our wonderful service users, and carry on.