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Facing the Long-Term Impact of Vicarious Trauma

As we look toward 2019, I have been thinking about the particularly difficult climate that many of us have experienced this past year and how we can best navigate the year to come.  We talk often at Hale Kipa about vicarious trauma and the impact of the work that we do on our staff, for this is a very tough business to be in. As helpers, we attempt to enter our relationships with those that we serve with positive energy and hopes for their future. But the terrible stories, the sadness, the pain and the anguish that is so often a part of that process is not left only with them but also is part of us as a result. And how we deal with that and what we do with that actually matters.

I have also been thinking about what it means when we are inundated in the press by the comments and the insinuations that some people are more important than others, some people matter more than others, and some of their experiences matter more than others. And while I do not know what that means, I do know that it makes my heart ache and makes me profoundly sad.

I have worked for most of my career to support individuals who have been disempowered, disenfranchised, and marginalized by society. I must also admit that for most of my career that did not represent the majority of the population. And that made it extremely difficult to be an advocate since often the very people that we care most about here at Hale Kipa do not carry a lot of credibility with those in positions of power and influence. That is why it matters when people like Chris Benjamin, the CEO of A&B, is willing to stand up as the Chair of our Capital Campaign and speak to the reality that we are a nation of immigrants and that it matters that we embrace the values that have been part of who the United States has been since its inception. I am not looking at the country through rose-colored glasses or with sepia-toned nostalgia. For I recognize that this country has faults and flaws, not unlike a human being. I have never met anyone who is perfect, and I certainly doubt I will ever find a country that lives up to all of my expectations.

On the other hand, our capacity as a people to be caring and embracing those who are less fortunate seems to me to be eroding. It is a sad irony that Congress issues major tax cuts, and to no one’s surprise there are now increasing deficits at a federal level. It is appalling however that one possible response to those deficits as articulated by Senator Mitch McConnell, is that we are going to cut entitlements to Medicaid and to Social Security. That does not leave me feeling as though we all are, as the saying goes, “Equal in the eyes of the Constitution or the Country.” And I do not know how we communicate to those that we serve at Hale Kipa who are already feeling as though they are out of the mainstream and are trying to find a way back in to allow themselves to participate in the community in a meaningful way, that they truly do matter.

We at Hale Kipa continue to be concerned about trauma both direct and vicarious, in this work that we do. When I think about the staff who are working with our population, I have to think that the context, the culture that we live in, and the societal norms that we are dealing with are increasingly barriers to our ability to achieve what we want with the people that we serve. And so, I am conscious that vicarious trauma is taking a toll on all of those who work for Hale Kipa, as well as all of those who we serve.

That concerns me, since the human spirit has only so much resilience. I suspect there is a limit to what any of us can take. And I do not know that we know what an individual limit looks like or how far an individual can go, or what the breaking point is. In the old days the word that we used was “burnout.” Now I think burnout was probably a euphemism for the long-term impact of vicarious trauma. That is to say that there is some point where you just cannot show up with the optimism, openness, the sensitivity, the empathy, the caring, and the passion that you need to be there in a meaningful way with and for the youth and families we serve. For after all our goal is to help them develop hope and aspirations and a belief in themselves that will allow them to achieve a future that matters to them and their families. For us to do that, we have to be fully present and to be fully present means to be physically and emotionally and spiritually healthy.

These are difficult times for achieving that goal. Personally, I am struggling with trying to find some way in spite of the constant bombardment of bad news and reminders that not all people matter equally, that allows me to provide leadership, vision, and hope to this organization and to those we serve as well as those who work here. Because this work really matters and the people that we work with really matter. Everyone really matters to me.

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