Monday, May 26, 2008

Skill, knowledge, compassion and one ordinary woman

She'll never win a Nobel prize, be highlighted in a feature article or lauded on Oprah. There's no video to show you what she does. There's no website that explains it. I can't tell you her name. I can't tell you details about her work because I can't know them. No one outside her offices and the individuals involved can. What I can tell you is that she's at the office most days by 6:00 or 6:30. Quite often, she stays hours late, and she puts in at least one eight or nine hour Saturday a month. Hardly a day goes by that she doesn't walk, unprotected, into neighborhoods where drive-by shootings and other violence are the norm. Her life is threatened repeatedly.

She's a social worker in San Francisco, and she's charged with protecting children whose parents are unable or unwilling to assure their children's safety themselves. Sometimes she must protect children from parents who harm them. And sometimes, when years of providing services, care and support to parents proves futile, and the parents continue to put a child at grave risk, she must testify in a hearing that results in terminating the parent's rights. Her heart breaks every time.

Long before it comes to that, she uses every tool at her disposal, both personal and system-provided, to help the parent turn her or his life around and regain custody of their child. She has plenty of tools. Together, she and the parents succeed far more than they fail.

What's her secret? She is the most successful communicator I know. I speak only from personal experience, and that is considerable, in both public and private discourse. She has a way of honoring each individual. In the most tense situations where multiple parties are involved, I have seen her respond in such a way that each person feels she is on his or her side. No matter how strongly she may disagree with another's point of view, she never fails to show respect first to the individual, but also for their feelings and beliefs.

She is a born teacher. Patient and keen, she asks as many questions as she answers. More importantly, she listens to the answers. Always, she helps people begin from where they are. She understands setbacks, and she understands next steps. Especially, she understands individual triumph. She's there with a congratulatory gift in hand when a mom graduates from rehab, when an at-risk teenager graduates high school. Sometimes she's the only person there.

She's not the only social worker putting her life on the line every day to help children in danger, and she's not the only one with that combination of skill, knowledge and compassion, but Anonymous asked a few days ago who in San Francisco is helping to build an Ordinary world, and she leapt to mind. If you're lucky enough to know her, your life is rich beyond measure. She is the main reason I know the Village of Ordinary is possible today, right now.

Who in your life is an Ordinary hero? Tell us about that person in the comments section below.

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