The Family Helper

Interview with Vicky Joseph

Vicky Joseph

at the Families Helping Families Learning Resource Center in Naperville, IL.

How she is making a difference in the world: Vicky Jospeh started an organization called Families Helping Families 23 years ago. The organization provides homeless families in DuPage County a holistic approach to getting back on their feet. It is entirely volunteer run with no overhead costs. Every single donation, monetary or otherwise, goes towards supporting families in need.

Vicky’s oldest daughter, Lindsay, was our favorite (and best) babysitter growing up. My earliest memory volunteering was at the annual Families Helping Families walk that used to be the organization’s fundraising event for the year. Having the Joseph family in my life at such a young age was instrumental in forming my early thoughts on social justice. Though I had no idea what “social justice” meant as a seven year old, I began learning that there were people in this world who, to no fault of their own, were less lucky than I was. Mrs. Joseph was, and continues to be, an example to many that if you see a need to help others in this world, you can do something about it.

I met with Vicky, or Mrs. Joseph as I forever will call her, at the Families Helping Families Learning Resource Center in Naperville. The center is on the first floor of a large apartment building that is home to several different single mothers and their children in the Families Helping Families program. Children’s drawings were displayed on the walls and the room was welcoming. Towards the back, there was a room full of donations and a large closet that contained new donated items for clients to choose from as they needed.

“These are the items you can’t purchase with food stamps,” Mrs. Joseph explained to me.

Mrs. Joseph introduced me to two other people she was meeting with. One man, who had just dropped off a check to her, was inquiring about other ways in which he could support Families Helping Families. Mrs. Joseph then introduced me to the second person she was meting with as one of “our clients.”

“She will graduate with her degree in nursing next week!” Mrs. Joseph was beaming.

“I’m so ready do be done,” the client explained. “I have a meeting with my mentors next week and I would love for you to be there, Vicky. You’re my favorite person in the world, after all.”

“Of course I’ll be there,” Mrs. Joseph said. “We need to talk about your exit strategy!”

The two went back and fourth and I was reminded of what a beautiful woman Mrs. Joseph is. She is infinitely dedicated to helping people in need. Her love and passion for the work she does knows no limits. She is constantly trying to better herself for others and her energy is inspiring.

Q: How did Families Helping Families start?

A: When my children were little, I was looking for a way to give back to the community. It was around the holidays so we decided to “adopt a family” and purchase holiday gifts for them. I drove over to this woman’s home to deliver the gifts we had purchased for her and quickly realized she needed much more than gifts. It made me so sad to see. As soon as I got home, I started researching programs in the area that were supporting homeless families. I found a few but many programs simply offered housing and only for a short period of time. That didn’t seem right to me.

I came across Bridge Communities and asked them if I could operate under them. I told them we would need housing for at least two years so that the care provider could get some sort of degree from College of DuPage.

“My argument was: How are you supposed to make a living if you’re not educated? You can’t just give people an apartment, you have to help them along their journey.”

Bridge Communities agreed. We had a goal of supporting one single mother and her children for a year while she went back to school. The kids and I made flyers at home, put on our rollerblades and placed the flyers around the neighborhood. We quickly raised $8,000 and have been supporting families ever since.

Q: How is Families Helping Families structured?

A: Our clients go through a screening process through caseworkers at Bridge Communities. Once it seems like a good fit, the mom signs a contract with Families Helping Families adhering to the rules of the program. Families have specific goals they want to accomplish during their time with us like completion of a degree or trade school and a job with higher wages. Families are typically in the program for two years and the goal is to achieve self-sufficiency through education.

Each family has two mentors assigned to them. These mentors are on-call and meet with our clients weekly. Mentors will be there for these families to help set goals, if a family’s car breaks down, or if they just need someone to talk to.

All of our clients have been single mothers and their children. Most of them come from poverty and/or abusive situations.

Families Helping Families operations under Bridge Community, they’re our umbrella organization.  In addition to the actual apartments, our clients get tremendous services from Bridge such as tutoring, counseling, employment services, children’s services, and more.

Q: What surprised you most about starting Families Helping Families?

A: People’s generosity. I really think people are generous. When Families Helping Families first started, I would come home to donations in my mailbox. People in the neighborhood started forming committees for us and finding ways they could help. The funding has always come. It’s never been an issue.

“I really think it’s human nature to want to help others. When you have your needs met, our next human desire is to make a difference.”

Q: Are there every any moments where you question why you’re doing what you’re doing or if this is all worth it?

A: Oh every week!

“The hardest part has always been working with systemic poverty and abuse and the victims of abuse. It effects the way you look at the world. It’s hard to change someone’s thoughts or perspective after they have been in these kinds of situations for so long.”

Sometimes, families will leave us after a short period of time. There are a lot of rules here that the mothers have to follow and it’s not for everyone. It’s hard to see someone go.

Q: What are the moments that sustain you?

A: Of course it’s my relationships with the clients. And the mentors that work with us.

I recently ran into a woman who had left the program only after a few months. We were so sad to see her go. I asked her how she was doing and she responded immediately that even though she hated having to implement a budget, everyday she used the tools we taught her and because of it her finances were ok. It made me so happy because she was still able to take away something from the program and use it for her benefit.

If every woman that has gone through this, comes out in a little better place than before, then I’ve done my job. We can’t have expectations that everyone will come out and be a homeowner because that’s not reality. We have to look incrementally at success, that’s what I keep telling my mentors.

“The end result may not look like what we wanted to look like but that’s OK, and we still have to try.”

To me, what success looks like is financial security. If your car breaks down and you don’t have to decide between paying rent and fixing your car, that’s success.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is pursing their passions?

A: 1) What stops people in their tracks is when they look at big problems and get overwhelmed. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the enormity of these issues. You can’t fix poverty. You won’t! But you can fix micro issues within this macro issue. I can help one family.

2) Then you can decide: Am I going to help a lot of people a little, like a food pantry, or am I going to help a little amount of people a lot, like we do. Decide which person you are and go for it.

Q: Books that have inspired you lately?

A: Nickel and Dimed On (NOT) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

I think should be required for everyone to read in this country.

“Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable” by Lois J. Zachary and Lory A. Fischler

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