I’ve been a reporter since I was 15, covering high school news.
I had my first full-time job in journalism at 17, at a local weekly.
I was a political journalist at Canada’s largest daily paper for more than 20 years, ending as a foreign correspondent in South Asia.
And in all those years, kindness would not be the first word I would use to describe what motivated me or my peers.
More like: Competition. Social Justice. Competition.
When I got a part-time job as a rehabilitation counselor during grad school in San Francisco, I was amazed by the difference in work cultures.
At this office, California’s Department of Rehabilitation, almost everyone was kind.
Compassion seemed to be the main motivation.
And competition? Not an issue.
My first lesson from Bob, a seasoned rehabilitation counselor:
I was on the phone berating a job developer for not following through on a commitment to one of my clients, a young woman whose energy belied her severe physical disability.
When I hung up, fuming, Bob stopped by to caution, “We don’t do that.”
He explained that everyone in the field was working hard to find training and jobs for people with disabilities, and that this overworked job developer wasn’t shirking.
It wasn’t a criticism, just sound advice at the start of a new career.
“I don’t know how they do it in Canada, but you’re probably used to being aggressive, working in journalism,” he said. “You’ll find you don’t need to be like that here.”
Bob was fascinated by international reporting.
I was fascinated by Bob, whose long hair and Lebowski wardrobe and attitude seemed right out of the ‘60s. He wore a different Hawaiian shirt every day.
He was a big man with a huge heart, with the toughest caseload. Bob counseled people who had spent more time in prison, parole and probation than at any job.
No education? No skills? No problem.
Bob treated each with as much respect as he would show any professional in the field, and he got results.
He found jobs for the Americans that critics say don’t want to work, can’t work, will never work.
Former crack addicts, former hookers, former criminals … Bob had one of the best success rates of any rehabilitation counselor in the city. (But he didn’t care about those numbers — at all.)
His clients were so grateful to find work with a living wage, they would visit, call or send letters, for years later to update him on their progress.
I was impressed by Bob’s no-B.S. approach, yet extraordinary ability to connect with people working at staying clean and sober, and staying focused on productive work.
When I got my first case of a lifelong meth addict, someone who had never worked for money in her adult life, and was fresh out of prison, I despaired.
I took my journalism-hardened stereotypes to Bob.
We had long talks about why alcohol and drug addictions are disabilities, about society’s failure at mental health treatment.
I watched and learned, in awe.
My client got little except empathy from me, finding a job by herself at a non-profit.
She worked so hard, and was such a light to other ex-addicts and ex-offenders, that she was soon promoted and recognized as Employee of the Month.
We met on the bus, and she had changed, in a short time.
She was as happy and outgoing as before, but well-dressed, more confident, and far, far healthier.
I was so shocked by the transformation that I finally realized what I had missed at our early counseling sessions, loaded with her medical history, her prison record, and her lack of a resume — and my journalism-weary stereotypes.
She was beautiful.
A year after I began working full-time at the Department of Rehabilitation (after two years of part-time), I left San Francisco, unable to afford the city on a salary sliced by one furlough after another.
At my farewell party, I told fellow counselors I had never met a group of co-workers so kind and compassionate.
I said their empathy for others was so remarkable that I had never worked in a place that was so welcoming.
Our boss told everyone that after my first week, I had come to her office to express gratitude for my first pay cheque at a full-time job.
It was the first money I had earned as a full-time worker in America, and I was overjoyed by my new career.
I thanked them all for taking me in.