Milo Kelley, president of the Thrive! board, recently issued the "handshakes to hugs" challenge to local social services agencies via a letter to the editor in the Manhattan Mercury. Below is the text of his letter. Milo works hard on behalf of Thrive!, and we appreciate his challenge to the Manhattan community. All of us need to work to deliver hugs — sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical (not everyone enjoys hugging) — to others who are experiencing the stressors of poverty.
I have been actively engaged with a number of initiatives related to providing assistance and care to those struggling with poverty in Manhattan for a number of years, and I have been closely associated with Thrive! Flint Hills for about three years. I have learned so much about both the stresses people in poverty experience as well as the stereotypes they battle. I’m particularly troubled by the way many people, particularly those in poverty, are treated as they seek assistance from a number of local agencies.
Engaging poverty is difficult for those experiencing poverty and for those who are trying to help. The stresses of living in poverty are overwhelming and nearly unbearable at times, and those seeking assistance can be angry and difficult. But agencies and the individuals who work for them need to be not only professional, but also courteous and caring.
To be truly helpful, agency staff and volunteers need to listen carefully and acknowledge the stresses and frustrations of those who are experiencing poverty. Acknowledging needs or demands — even outside what an individual agency can provide — can help individuals seeking services feel heard. Active listening that demonstrates understanding of requests calms almost everyone. It may take three or four times longer than just telling people they need to go elsewhere, but it is much more effective and helpful. When people feel heard and understood, they are better prepared to listen to what you can do to help meet their needs, even if they need to visit another agency.
I see this listening and caring as moving from a handshake to hugs. A handshake is professional, but a hug is caring. A hug conveys a more personal connection, an understanding, and recognition that the person is valued. This is something few people in poverty experience. Like all of us, people struggling with poverty want to be noticed, thought of as important, and worthy of respect.
Every individual and agency in the Manhattan social services community should actively work to move from handshakes to hugs. I encourage every agency to take the “From Handshakes to Hugs” Challenge. If you do, post it where others can see it; in your waiting areas, on social media, and talk about what you are doing. Invest in our community by doing this for everyone who passes through your door.
— Milo Kelley
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