Oral History 07.2015: Monica French, Working with the Underprivileged

This interview of Monica French was conducted by Chris Tranbarger on May 10, 2015.

T: So I want to start off this interview with, kinda some questions to figure out where we are going.

F: Okay

T:  What inspired you to do, like, the work you are doing in the field you are doing. I know you work with, um, with a lot of people that are underprivileged and have nothing [Monica verbally agreeing]. What inspired you to keep working there, what’s driving you to keep doing that?

F: Okay, well you know I got the job; I had been in private home healthcare for about six and a half years.

T: Okay.

F: In that, I had another case that they needed me to do and I was getting pretty burnt out, you know it’s a high stress job, and the way that my last client, that fell apart, it really bothered me! You know, and if you’re gonna take care of somebody in their home, you’re gonna have to be one-hundred percent in, and I was only about eighty percent and the lady had the early stages of Alzheimer’s , so that’s something you just can’t be fully there.

T: Right.

F: I started looking around for something different that would fit with my school schedule and through word of mouth, through a friend of my moms, she said “Well, I know that they are looking for somebody down at the Salvation Army, so I applied and they put me on and it was awesome. You know it’s nice to work around a group of people that there’s a purpose, you know it’s an office type environment. You know, I wasn’t sure how I’d do that because I had not been in an office setting in a long time. I was self-employed for over twenty years.

T: Okay.

F: Everybody was just great, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they have a purpose, providing service for somebody else that truly needs it. To me I think the reason that I’ve stayed there , other than the fact that it works with my school schedule , is the fact that I do get to see the difference  that I make every day. It’s kinda like being here at The Church Under the Bridge, it something that you see, you’re meeting a need and it’s something that must people take for granted. Most people think “Well I’ve got food to eat” or “I can get clothes when I need them,” but you know, we do a lot of the same things that they do right there. We have clothing vouchers every afternoon, so people can get clothes. Especially this times of year, with the change in the season something that is really needed. We do food pantry, you know, every afternoon and you we try to help with the food security plus we do financial assistance in the morning. But I think what keeps me there and what inspires me to stay there, is the fact that I can see the difference that it makes.

T: It’s almost like you’re saying like, you get to see that immediate gratification in knowing that you’re making a difference right then.

F: It’s immediate and long term! I have kids that come in Claudia and Octavian, great kids! When I came to work there, uh it’s been almost two years ago, they were in the shelter, they were just coming, and they were being intakes into the shelter. So I saw them in that aspect, but they were really, uh, “defeated,” and it’s tough to get up and go to school every day and wonder if people are gonna find out if you live a homeless shelter, or not. But, their parents have done great, they went through the program and are out on their own now, but they still use the Salvation Army address for them to drop them off, at least till the end of the school year, just to be consistent. They pick them up there and they bring them back there in the afternoon on the bus, just so they can stay in the same school and everything till the end of the year. They come in every afternoon and talk to me, and just to see them light up, and to see, see, them move forward. You know cause I know how hard it is to raise my daughter and the struggle it is for me, and we have a house, you know. We have consistency, and just to see them kids light up, oh man that’s all there is. So I see the short term, which is immediate, somebody that’s hungry is getting food, or somebody’s power is turned off, getting turned back on that day. Especially in the winter time, I mean that’s hard to know that there’s somebody sitting in a cold ass house, and you know, all it needs is a switch turned on. But, then the long term you see is people, even if they are what “we” call ‘regulars,’ you know you’re helping them out.

T: Right!

F: Like I said with Octavian and Claudia, it’s just awesome. It lights up my day every day to see them come in; they tell me how they did on their tests. You know?

T: Yeah! I think we’re talking about the specific things you do. Out of the things you do, you know the food vouchers and stuff. What do you think gives the biggest impact? Do you think just giving someone food  is impact enough, or do you think it’s all the services is enough?

F: To me I thinks it’s everything we do, you for some people it’s just food, some people just clothes, to me the Salvation Army really works hard to let people feel like that they have responsibility in their own lives. We don’t try to fix it; we try to help them solve it, which is two different approaches. Some of the other agencies will go in and pay somebody’s whole entire bill, but there not looking for the fact, because people in that type of financial services people are only allotted so much money a year in financial assistance. So there gonna spend all that money on them to have air conditioner, and then they can’t go and get help in any other service. I pride the fact that we are the only agency in high Point that has funds right now!

T: Wow!

F: We are the only people offering assistance in the whole town.

T: Wow!

F: To me that speaks volumes, and I think that a lot of it is because; we do try to help people be a part of their own solution. It’s kind of like what we learned in class, you know? If I have a voice in what happens I’m gonna feel better about it, and I’m gonna try and do better about it. So, that’s the thing that we try see is, everybody gets some place in there, some people don’t wanna ask for help., you know, but we don’t let any shame in it, we treat everybody the same. But think it is the fact that we are a good Steward to that money, and we do try to encourage people to have a voice in their own lives and that’s what makes the difference.

T: That’s awesome! What sort of setbacks do you encounter on an average day? Like you know, like is it having to turn somebody away?

F:  That’s part of it, with you know, the fact we are the only agency in town that has money. Just this past Monday, there were fifty-three people that came through that door, Fifth Three! That’s a lot of damn people.

T: That’s A lot!

F: You can’t help that many people and said to see the need that’s out there and knowing you’re doing something about it, something positive about it. But, then all those people got turned away; she did more people than she typically does, but we were only able to help about twelve people with money.

T: So twelve-hundred dollars? That’s still a lot of money!

F: Yes!

T: That’s still A lot of money.

F: But, like I said, to see those people come in the door, and knowing that when they leave that day, that’s it. They’re power turned off!

T: So

F: That’s it, and then to know, when they do get their power turned on; it’s very frustrating and I understand reconnections fees. I understand how things work! But, when you have someone who can’t pay their damn bill already and then you gonna tack on a two-hundred fifty dollar reconnection on top of that. You know and you can just see the people get defeated, and they give up, and you know I don’t wanna see anybody give up. That’s a hard part, is seeing the people who have tried over and over to get the help and they’re either, they don’t have transportation, or maybe they don’t have the mental capacity to understand that first come first serve means you get up and you get there early and, but you know, you have to be fair across the board. First come first serve means that. When I got to work on Monday there was fifty-three people through the door that day, there was twenty some people standing in line when the door opened. It’s tough because I know going in that.

T: You’re gonna have to refuse some.

F: There’s a lot of those people that are gonna go home, and you know, they’ve got babies, they got elderly parents they’re taking care of and you can’t and right now the frustrating part is, is that Piedmont Natural Gas, not our rules and regulations, their rules and regulations say that heat is not a necessity right now, because we’ve moved into summer heating. Unfortunately for some people, that’s their hot water [sarcastic laugh]. They’ve got a big ole’damn bill left over from winter. But now they’re saying “We can’t help you with that, “and so they’re gonna get cut off, they’ve got a high bill already, they’re getting cut off, and there’s is about a three-hundred dollar reconnection fee.

T: So they’re behind and that’s another three-hundred tacked on, just for reconnecting a switch?

F: Yes, because it’s not a necessity right now. We’ve moved into a different energy source, we’re now in to summer, warm weather months. That’s their rule, not ours and it’s very frustrating to finally get up there, and they’re up there ‘first come, first serve,’ and they’re one of the first people and they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do, and then we say “We’re sorry, but we’re not paying any gas bills right now!”

T: So what are some things that I didn’t mention that you feel are important for me to know, especially about the works you’re doing and the difference you’re trying to make?

F: I would say it’s just very important, don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s, that’s what I’ve learned is that you can’t assume anybody’s story is what you think it is. My story is not what you think it is, you know? They look at me and say, oh she’s this ,but, you know I’ve been a drug addict and I’ve been an alcoholic, I’ve been down in the dirt, living in my car, you know. I’ve done a lot of stuff that would look at me and say I wouldn’t believe that. “You never know what somebody’s struggle is, you don’t know where there at in life. I could make that, I could say ‘Well Chris is…you know, this that and the other and not necessarily true, but that’s how it is with poverty and with people, we have a big illiteracy problem that contributes too. People that come in to get services, because the jobs that they did have, the jobs were you didn’t have to know how to read, those jobs are damn gone and there not coming back, and it will surprise you how many people in this area,; the only thing they can do is write their name. But, to me, you can’t judge that book by its cover, I dunno when that person comes in what there need is. What are you gonna do to help that person get to the next point in life? You know to me it’s a kind word.

T: Monica, I appreciate you letting me interview you.