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I will never forget little Jonelle.
My first full-time job in local government began 17 years ago. I was one of 19 newly hired Benefits Programs Specialists in the City of Richmond’s Department of Social Services. Our job was to screen families for food stamps and Aid to Dependent Otildren (now called TANF) where eligible families receive monthly financial support We had three days to process food stamp applications for homeless people, 30 days for regular food stamps, and 45 days for financial assistance.
The ink barely dry on my college diploma, I prided myself in ensuring that applicants received their benefits as soon as possible. My efficiency and accuracy numbers were high. On our “intake days” we would see 15-20 clients in quick interviews for initial screening.
One intake day, Jonelle and her mom came to my interview desk. Recently homeless, they received an expedited review, so I said to them, “You will have your food stamps today.” Upon hearing this, Jonelle’s face lit up, she threw her arms into the air and yelled,“Yeah, mommy, we get to eat!”
I froze. Little Jonelle turned me into jell-o. I had already processed dozens of cases in my new job, but for the first time, it was real to me that Jonelle and her mom were not just a case number. I had efficiency and accuracy statistics for my caseloads, but no figures on making a difference in the lives of families. I could open those musty brown case folders and crank numbers with the best of them, but I soon realized that inside those folders was a complex story of personal suffering and pain.
I wish I could tell you that little Jonelle made me a better case worker, but I don’t have that wonderful gift that enables human services professionals to help families turn their lives around, often in the midst of incomparable adversity. Jonelle is with me, however, in all my considerations, and I hope the memory of her hopeful little face makes me a better public servant.
Jonelle is 21 years old now, the same age I was when I handled her mom’s food stamp case. While you won’t find Jonelle’s food stamps on my resume, I do count it as one of the accomplishments of my career – I helped a little girl.
Often, the lasting accomplishments in local government, as in life, are unseen.
Thanks for all you do.
Submitted by Anthony Romanello