Lucille Gibbs, a social worker with the Homeless Women Veterans Program in San Francisco, has made a difference in many people’s lives, but she recalls one in particular.
“One rainy afternoon, a young woman came into the office needing assistance,” she recounts quietly. “She said she was 19, went into the armed services as a lab technician, but lost everything and became homeless after divorcing.”
Her only real possession was a truck, which doubled as her home. The woman went to work every day, arriving early to wash and change clothes in the company bathroom.
After a time, Gibbs realized there was a deeper problem. The woman was a victim of military sexual trauma, which is not uncommon for women in the service, according to Gibbs.
“I started treatment and was able to get her VA help and compensation for her injury. The woman decided to become a counselor. Next year she will earn her college degree.”
As an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Gibbs’ primary job is helping veterans meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. Most of the time clients come to her, but she also does outreach through other nonprofit agencies, social services and employment offices.
Some of her clients can be particularly heartrending. For example, she has worked with nurses who were in Viet Nam and came back with invisible scars and trauma after taking care of the wounded young men day after day.
“At the end of the day I often wish I could take a client home with me,” she confides. “But, if I did, I wouldn’t be able to help the next person.”
`She has a few employment tips for those with an altruistic nature: Call a social service agency that works with children, seniors or the homeless and ask if you can interview a social worker. Volunteering is a good way to test the waters before making a serious commitment.
The shy or introverted need not apply.
“To go into this sort of work, you have to be a person who knows yourself and is not judgmental,” she advises. “A person who is able to find and use resources. I often tell my clients ‘We are going to kick over every stone until we find what you need.’”
Fighting for Farm Workers
Ana Rizo, leader organizer for the National Farm Worker Ministry, has always wanted to fight for those less fortunate.
“Years ago, I was involved at UC Santa Barbara and one cause was the farm worker movement’s mushroom boycott,” she recalls. “I volunteered at the United Farm Worker office and worked on the living-wage campaign and economic and racial justice issues.”
The national organization, Student’s Labor Action Project, heard about her volunteer work and recruited her to be the national coordinator in Washington, DC. Two years later, the Farm Workers Ministry hired her and she returned to California.
“There is no ‘average’ working day for me,” she says. “I am the only one on the staff, so one day I am doing fund raising, but mostly I work with community churches to raise awareness of the farmworkers in their neighborhoods and show people ways to stand in solidarity with them.”
Some days find Rizo organizing a human billboard line, writing activist letters and postcards, and most recently in the UFW’s boycott of Gallo wines with a silent prayer vigil at a vineyard.
“The most exciting aspect of my job is when people in the churches get to meet farmworkers,” she states. “When that happens the workers get to thank the church members and people from the churches can see hard-working families.
“In the nonprofit sector there are so many issues and often people forget to put a face on the issues.”
What kind of personality would be a good fit for this kind of environment?
“We don’t have a human resource manual, so overall it’s having a positive attitude,” she advises. “The motto of the UFW is ‘Si, se puede,’ which means ‘Yes, we can!’’
Rizo explains they expect to succeed because theirs is a heart-felt cause.
“This is definitely not the place for people who want to move up the corporate ladder,” she concludes.
For those who do want to advance in nonprofits, there are plenty of job opportunities.
“Six percent of Californians work in the nonprofit sector,” reports Pete Manzo from the Southern California Center for Nonprofit Management. “What’s more, there are 50,000 nonprofit organizations in the state, and most have budgets over $25,000.”
The pool of groups that employ the most people is quite large and includes hospitals, universities and museums. Job descriptions range from unskilled to positions requiring advanced degrees.
“Compensation depends on the kind of work, and I do think admin and unskilled workers are paid at a similar rate as the for-profit sector,” he notes. “But there is a big debate concerning whether that applies at the high-skilled level.”
Manzo finds many benefits to working in the nonprofit arena and doing passionate, valuable work. “People pick the kind of career that fits their personality and plays to their strengths. That is the same rationale in for-profit companies. We have all types and people of all skill levels.”
For those interested in making a difference, Manzo recommends going to his organization’s website: nonprofitdirections.org for a list of job postings. The next step would be discovering where your interests lie, then talking to people and organizations with good reputations to learn more about the work.
“It isn’t just the kind of work, it’s the work environment, and many organizations don’t provide support and other things to get the job done,” Manzo cautions. “That’s the ironic twist that can be frustrating.
Nevertheless, Manzo enthusiastically endorses the field. “In nonprofit work, you might get paid less, but we care a lot more.”