I just interviewed Devon Christianson, the Access and Volunteer Manager for the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Brown County.
This is how she attempts to save her corner of the world.
How long have you been doing this?
If you asked my parents they would say Iíve been trying to save my corner of the world since I was born. But Iíve been paid for doing so ever since college with several jobs that have had a driven, purposeful mission.
Do you remember a turning point in your life when you decided this is what you wanted to do?
It sounds a little corny, but I donít think people go into public service unless they have a passion for helping other people. But through my career, my passion has predominately been for older people.
It started when I was 16 and I got a job at a nursing home because it was near our home. My family only had one car, and I could walk there. I started out as a water girl, walking up and down the hallways, passing out water to the older people before they went to bed. I started to fall in love with that population, and the corny part is I really started to feel a connection to people who are less fortunate and who feel downtrodden about their situation. The less corny part was that the moment I walked in I said, ďThere will be a day that I will return to this facility in a different role, and I wonít allow this to continue the way that it is. It should be done a different way. People shouldnít have to die here, and they shouldnít have to live like this.Ē That was a turning point.
I also went to my parents, who were college professors and who thought in big, global literary terms, and I asked, ďWhat am I going to do with my life?Ē And they said, ďThe Baby Boomers are coming.Ē So here I am at age 16, and my parents are talking about a trend that is going to hit in 2013. The fact is, you canít go wrong doing something for older people.
So my ambition was a combination of wanting to save the world, the inevitable need for workers in my field, and a sense of social justice. Since then Iíve served many different roles, but they have always focused on helping older people or people with disabilities. When I was teaching in the social work program at the university it was about passing on my passion about serving these roles and teaching social workers how to do it better. At the same time I was doing direct service with older people, then I became a manager, then a regional planner, and in every role I have stayed on that path.
Were there low points career-wise that you had to push through?
Thatís always true, isnít it?
Ok, how about a crossroads where you thought, ďAll right, this stinks,Ē and you overcame it? Or have you ever thought this was something you didnít want to do any more?
Iíve never questioned whether I had to have a meaningful job. I can never be rigid, I can never be driven by profit.
One low point was when I returned to a nursing home in a different role as a social worker. I realized that it was a business, and that it was for profit. I was there feeling that I was going to empower people, protect their rights, and be an advocate, which is the real job of a nursing home social worker. But the administrator was in my office every day saying, ďHow come the beds arenít full? You need to fill the beds. You need to do more marketing.Ē There was a sudden realization for me that not only did I have to save the world, I needed to save it in the public sector. Working with older people means there is a lot of money to be made, and it was a sudden horror for me to realize that. I continue to battle that all the time. So that was a turning point for me. I didnít stay in that role for very long because I have a big mouth and it wasnít a good fit.
Even in my current job, I am marketed to by programs that want us to refer them because they are for-profit businesses that provide services to older people. Now Iím not going to say that if youíre a for-profit business then you donít have a heart, thatís not true. But I will say that I have worked in the private sector, and there is an overwhelming drive to be viable and financially solvent.
The other major turning point was in government work. I realized social policy can swing in huge ways. When the swings happen the mission may still be for the greater good, but bureaucratic layers are built up in order to make the machine continue to work. Bureaucracy pulls good workers away from direct service and into a mire of paperwork that they get swallowed by. So Iíve had my moments of reckoning about that as well in saying, ďIs this the right thing?Ē
Youíve talked a little about your motivations to help people. What else motivates you?
Iím also highly attracted to risk and adventure. This kind of work requires you to live on the edge, and although it doesnít seem like it, you have to take a whole lot of risk and put yourself out there. You have to dive forward and take on tasks that you donít know will work. I would be bored otherwise.
What is your biggest frustration with your job?
The political process causes policy changes that go all the way one way and then all the way the other way. Itís quite unfortunate.
What about lack of resources? There are a LOT of older people, and are you ever frustrated that they canít all be reached?
Weíre very fortunate that this is also a nonprofit agency. Itís a sort of quasi-government agency, so weíre outfitted better than the real government agencies. I work in two worlds. I work in human services in ďtotalĒ government, and then I come back here into a nonprofit world and Iíve been able to seek grants to try and improve things.
Unfortunately I have seen budgets get cut year-after-year-after-year. Without getting too political Iíll say itís unfortunate to see politicians cut funding without thinking first about how that will affect specific programs. Good employees cannot stay if they never get a raise in seven years, and it doesnít help to work at desks with the legs falling off of them. We have really good people who we desperately need, but they have very different opportunities.
We have waiting lists on services for people. There are people in this county with physical disabilities who have been on waiting lists for ten years. If a new quadriplegic canít get resources for ten years, tell me how you canít get alarmed and get a feeling of social injustice? If people heard and understood that story, then I think they would want to do something about it.
What is your greatest achievement?
As a parent I would say one of my greatest achievements is having a family with healthy, balanced kids.
Professionally, I think last year, when I was asked to speak in Washington DC at the National Summit on Aging. The state representatives and the state bureaus asked me to represent the state and speak to Josefina Carbonell (Assistant Secretary for Aging, United States Department of Health and Human Services) about why these issues matter and what weíre doing in Wisconsin. It felt really good, like all this work gave me an opportunity. Helping shape policy where it begins is much different from being on the receiving end of it.
Do you have any specific stories about a person you helped professionally?
I donít get to do direct service anymore, but this story is still close to my heart. It helped me realize that this agency really needs to continue. This agency takes cold calls, and I took a call from a woman (Iíll call her Mary) who was whispering with her hand cupped over the phone, ďI need your help. You need to come and save me. Iím in a home, and they wonít let me leave.Ē
I remember taking the call and thinking, ďOk, sheís got dementia, this isnít real.Ē So I started going through all my assessment stuff, ďWhere are you? How can I help you? Whatís happening?Ē and I convinced her to let me come and see her. Lo and behold, she was absolutely right. She had fallen and her family had placed her in an assisted living facility against her will with no legal right to do so. They told her she could not return to her home and that they were going to sell it.
Mary and I became fast friends, and I spent a lot of time with her. She had Parkinsonís, and the family did what they did because of what they thought was love for her. They were mistaken in thinking they had the right to do it and to use her money without her permission. They took every tool away from her even though her mind was totally sharp, and she was falling because she was getting frail. They never called us in advance or found other ways to do this, and I was able to meet with her and get her out. I got her back home to be with her bird, Tweety, and I visited her regularly. I got her all kinds of services and she was able to stay home for another six years before her Parkinsonís overcame her and got really bad.
I followed her all the way to the end, and she was a remarkable person. We got volunteers to see her, we got medical personnel to check up on her. We got her down to the Parkinsonís center in Milwaukee to adjust her medications. She was an inspiration to those of us who donít have a disability. She took on her whole family. In that nursing home she easily could have dwindled away without her bird, her home, her neighbors, or her landscape. Those things are really important to us as individuals.
Thatís the kind of work we do here. We donít charge money, we go out and assess people, and we link them to all the services that are going to keep them as independent as possible.
There are a lot of Maryís out there.
Do you have advice for people who want to get involved in serving others?
Good intentions arenít enough. With the world we live in today the skill set you need is relatively high. You canít just say you want to go out and do good. You need to get yourself loaded and armed with a tremendous amount of technical skill. You need to be good with computers. You have to be driven.
My advice would be for people to get involved in an organization they feel passionate about and volunteer. Get a flavor for the type of work that it is. Go out and interview people about what their jobs are like. What do they do? What do they like about their job and what do they dislike? Get your hands dirty and find out before you spend four years in college thinking, ďThis is what I want to doĒ before finding out itís not.
What does the future hold for your service and what does the future hold for you?
In Wisconsin, Governer Doyle put Aging and Disability Resource Centers on a fast track for five years. We are now headed into year three. This is a complete redesign of the entire system of long-term care in Wisconsin. They are shaking the apple tree all over the state. This is a huge restructuring that hasnít happened since 1981. Weíre running as fast as we can to convert long-term care systems that have a 10 year waiting list into an entitlement for people. So when youíre sick and youíre poor, you have someone who can help you and resources you can have. Itís much harder to do than it may sound, but it has a lot of momentum in the southern part of the state. Itís moving in this direction. Weíre well-positioned in Brown County because Iíve been trying to do this for the past 10 years. Weíve looked ahead knowing that this was coming, but thatís not true for a lot of other counties. The future will see a total shift in how government handles the business of long-term care, and weíre going to be major players in seeing that it happens.
For me, who knows what that means? My job is always changing. Who knows? I get pulled farther from direct service, and Iím becoming more of an administrator. But I can still live vicariously through others who do the direct service. As I get farther away from that will I feel the same passion for what Iím doing?