This post is recounting an encounter that I had with a client of October 18, 2013 that marks a profound moment in my time here in the Vincentian Volunteer Program.
It’s about 11:40 am, 20 minutes until my lunch break, and one of my co-workers flags me down as I’m coming up the steps from finishing a client meeting. “I accidentally overbooked your clients just now, so instead of having one more left before lunch, you have two. One of the clients does not have an Ohio ID but he has a VESTA card, program certificate, and notarized letter from his case worker.” Great (I say to myself). My boss has been gone all week so it’s just me and another person on my team conducting 14 client meetings per day, 11 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon by appointment. “I’ll take the guy without an ID”, I tell her, “we can give him a voucher to get an ID but he will have to have it in order to utilize our pharmacy’s services.” As she walked away, I began an unforgettable journey that will have a lasting impression on me for many years to come.
A bit about our pharmacy: we are a 501-c3 certified organization that operates entirely off of donations or charitable contributions. In order to maintain our license to practice, our clients must have an official OH state ID or driver’s license with them when they come to be certified or re-certified for our services. Notarized letters help to verify unemployment, income, living situations, etc., but are scarcely used as proof of identification in place of a state ID. This is a policy we follow due to how we get audited by pharmaceutical companies and the public sector, not meant to be discriminatory as much as a preventative measure.
Meet Jim. Jim is a transplant from Indiana that has been in OH for less than two weeks. He is homeless and undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction here in Cincinnati for the next 30 days, subsequently returning to his home state. As I mentioned before, he does not have an ID on him, so, theoretically, we will not be able to serve him today. I share this with Jim, and he tells me that he has to have his prescriptions today in order to stay in his program, otherwise they will send him home. We call Jim’s case manager and have a nice chat about his participation in the program and what documentation he will need in order to receive medication today. Ultimately, we decide that St. Vincent de Paul will give him a voucher to get an Ohio ID so that we can see him this afternoon and get certified.
But, we hit a roadblock. For one, Jim has no idea how the public transit system works in Cincinnati, and, more importantly, we need to verify what documentation Jim will need in order to procure an ID and what address he will be able to list as his place of residence. His case manager says that she will call me back asap. Right now it’s about 12:15 pm, so we have some time to work with here. I look up directions for the closest bus stop that will get him to the courthouse, plotting the way back as well. I try to keep him calm so that his nerves will not overwhelm him. My lunch break is shot, but I was determined that helping Jim was more important than eating my salad with Italian dressing.
So we wait. And wait. And wait. During this time, I learn a lot about Jim and his life. He shares that he is a former track and field athlete that had a state record for running a 10.8 when he was in high school. During his adult life, he has been able to travel to Colorado and visit Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pike’s Peak (still Co. Springs, but out of towners wouldn’t know that). We talk about the Broncos and Peyton Manning, the Reds, and the Bengals. For a period of about 30 minutes, I lost all sense of time while Jim and I began forming a relationship with one another. Part of the focus for our job placements is to help us understand what it means to be in solidarity with our clients. We cannot carry their burdens, but we can be present with them and provide them with resources or referrals to help alleviate the pressure of their load. “What’s your title here?”, he asked me bluntly. “Patient Advocate Specialist,” I replied, “I help people who need to utilize our pharmacy’s services to get prescriptions filled.” He seemed satisfied with the answer, but he and I both knew what he really wanted.
Bad news, and good news. Bad news is that, since he is homeless and not a permanent resident, he cannot not list any address in Cincinnati on his state ID, thus he will be unable to utilize our services at the St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy. However, during his wait time we were able to give him a clothing voucher to redeem at one of our stores and his program was able to find medication for him to use over the next month. Both Jim and I have mixed feelings on the subject, but we take the small victory to compensate for all of that we endured together to get to this point. I share some positive words of encouragement with him, hand him my business card, and escort him to the front door of our facility.
At this time, it is 1:20 pm, and I hadn’t even started lunch. My next client is up in our que, so I spring upstairs to grab an apple to put in my system. Low and behold, it is the Pharmacy Director, just back in the building from lunch. He asks me to walk through the client’s situation, and I use the best run-on sentence I can muster. I explain how the caveat in our organization’s policy does not account for people who are homeless, transient citizens, or program participants for short periods of time in Cincinnati. He looks me in the eye and says, “Ok. I appreciate you using a high level of discernment instead of rushing to push this client through. Have him bring in his VESTA card with his picture on it, program certification, and the notarized letter. Set him up with an afternoon appointment for early next week.”
While I was scrambling back to my desk to call his case manager and set up the appointment, I reflected on what had just taken place, and smiled.
Being an “advocate” is taking a job with a title, and doing the bare minimum to support a client, cause, or purpose. To be anadvocate, requires more. It requires that one work in solidarity with their constituents or side-by-side for an individual or family. Win, lose, or draw, you fight to the end and exercise every possible avenue before throwing in the towel. It takes patience, perseverance, and compassion-which is not something everyone can provide-because if you do not go the extra mile, it is not likely anyone else will.
My heart is on fire right now as I am again coming to understand the capabilities of what is possible in the social sector. Sometimes, institutions enlist policies that are meant to discriminate against the marginalized or make it difficult for them to have access to public services that many of us have never gone without. Other times, traditional policies must be revisited to adapt them to the changing nature of the modern world.
If my experience today serves any purpose, maybe it is to show that humanity’s ability to demonstrate compassion will be the vehicle by which social obstacles are overcome in the modern world. Not new rhetoric by any means, but, today, I’m feeling a bit more optimistic about the human race.
As I discover what it means for me to be an advocate, I challenge you to do the same. What are the things you are willing to advocate for, or are you content with just being an “advocate”?