By Julia Sykes
In October, one of my first tasks with Taller de José involved going through a list of clients who had received assistance from Compañerx(s) through the process of citizenship over the last few years. I was tasked to call and ask if they knew where they would be voting in the upcoming election. Though apprehensive to begin my internship with cold calls, I was quickly comforted by how kind each person was on the other end of the line. Clients were patient with me as I looked up polling locations, thorough in learning where to register to vote, and above all absolutely committed to performing their civic duty. Together, clients and I made plenty of small talk, struggled through finding accurate information, celebrated those who were ready to vote, and in one instance laughed with an elderly client yelling at her husband to turn the radio down in order to hear me. Empathy on the other end of the line is what allowed me to overcome feelings of doubt in order to establish genuine connections.
Recently, I accompanied a client through obtaining rental and utility assistance, and by the end she was so happy that she offered to cook me a meal; although I was touched, I was just as equally sad. The reality I have had to reckon with is that many clients who I have assisted through journeys similar to this client are people that I may never meet. As someone who cherishes human interaction in the form of hugs, shared cups of coffee, laughter and simply holding space together, virtual service has been challenging. I have been everything from charming and eloquent to clumsy and awkward in my calls to clients, and feel ever grateful to the mute button for saving me in moments where I felt particularly flustered. However, my gratitude abounds when it comes to the compassion and patience clients have shown me. The accompaniment model has been reversed—as clients in fact walk with me in grace and kindness as I fumble through navigating the vast intricacies of Chicago’s social services.
It is a privilege to work in this role: to see the city’s resources from this side of the table, to work with such a supportive team, to learn from staff and volunteers so deeply committed to the cause of helping others, to be entrusted with peoples’ stories.
When I began training for the Peace Corps, our supervisor told us this phrase: “In service, sometimes you will plant trees whose shade you will not get to sit under.” I have held this saying close to my heart over the years, and the thought has come up more frequently as I think about the clients that I may not get to share a hug or a cup of coffee with. My hope is that, even through this virtual platform, clients can still perceive my authenticity in helping them work towards their goals.
In the spirit of hopefulness, I pray and set as an intention to the universe that this year will provide me the opportunity to make deeper connections, and maybe even to meet a client in person. By the time this is published I will have received my first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as someone who has been working on COVID testing since May. The winds are changing, and I am confident that in 2021 there will be more space to strengthen bonds and form trusting relationships with clients.