Teaching etiquette gains life lessons

When Deborah Jones thinks back on her 20 years with CHD, she can describe many different ways she’s helped people, but there’s one story she loves to share. It starts when Jim Goodwin, CHD’s President and CEO, asked her about a new job.

“Jim connected me with a program director and she and I clicked right away,” Deb recalls. “But then she told me she wanted me to work with adolescent girls. Say what?!  My own daughters were growing out of adolescence at the time. I didn’t really want to get back into that whole scene, especially with girls facing who knows what kind of issues in their lives. But I’m at CHD to help, so I reluctantly accepted the position. Then I arrived at the Caring Together and fell in love. I’m going on 7 years on this site.”

Caring Together Intensive Group Home serves girls 12 to 18 years old. They often struggle with issues related to trauma, abuse, depression, self-harm, and substance use, among others. CHD’s on-site team provides the girls with integrated mental health, occupational therapy and nursing services, as well as direct care. Referrals to all Caring Together group homes are made through the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) or the Department of Mental Health (DMH).

“This isn’t where all of these girls would like to be,” Deb says, “but we make it feel like home. Honestly, for some of these girls, it feels more like home than anywhere they’ve lived.”

Deb says an important part of the work she and her staff do is giving the girls a routine. “They have to help cook and clean and keep their rooms tidy. It’s just how it is. They have to communicate with each other in an appropriate manner. Nothing less is acceptable. There’s no physical contact allowed, no PC as we say, and there are alarms on all doors and windows. They have to go to school and some of them go to a job. There are standards and every girl has to live up to them.”

It’s a tight ship, but Deb and her staff also make room for fun. “Every weekend we have activity schedule. Tonight it’s Red Box movies and getting pizza and hanging out together. Tomorrow is a sleepover where we ‘camp out’ together. Sometimes we have Spa Night where we do each other’s hair and nails. They’re girls, after all, they should have the chance to just be girls. We sing Karaoke, jump double Dutch, dance, and laugh. They keep me young.”

Ask Deb for an example of what she means and the stories flow. “I had a second job where I took care of an elderly woman. I just loved her. She was a smart lady, an accountant. Well, she passed away and of course I was heartbroken.  Anyway, we have this fund raiser every year for kids and families who didn’t have much and the daughter of this woman knew about it. She reached out to me and said her family decided it would have made her mom happy if they could do something for my girls in Caring Together.”

What happened as a result of this special donation was simply amazing.

“The girls were on school vacation,” Deb recalls. “I made them all a wonderful brunch and turned it into an etiquette class. We went over how you sit properly at a table in a nice restaurant, what’s appropriate conversation at the table, how to order your meal properly and interact with a waiter when something you got wasn’t what you asked for. It was fun. Some of these girls had never gone out anywhere nice to eat—not ever—so it was all new.”

The etiquette class was part of a plan that Deb was keeping under wraps. “I didn’t want my girls to be on good behavior just because they knew something good was going to happen. So on Friday afternoon I had the staff take the girls shopping for a new outfit for each of them. Dress, shoes, hosiery, you know, a nice outfit. I told them all the new outfit stays on a hanger—you may not wear it. Well, they started coming in the house and showing me their outfits on the hangers. They were all excited. So I said to them, ‘I’m feeling kind of hungry, do you think we should go out to dinner tonight?’ They did! I sent them upstairs to get showers and put on their new outfits and do each other’s hair. It was like prom night, girls being girls. When they came down I said, ‘Girls do a cat walk for me and tell me how you’re feeling about yourselves in the moment.’ They felt so good about themselves. Then I said, ‘Let’s just go over what we talked about in etiquette class.’ And we did and they all took it seriously. I told them, ‘Girls, we are one band with one sound. We are a team. If there are any issues whatsoever, we will all be coming back.’ But I knew they felt too good about themselves to let that happen.”

They were ready to go…almost. “They were saying, ‘C’mon, Miss Deb, can’t we GO?’ I told them, ‘Now wait, there’s one more thing. We have the most beautiful ladies in Springfield right here and I think you look way too good to ride to Connecticut in staff cars, so I called in a ride for you.’ I pulled back the curtain and there in our driveway was a stretch limo. Only one of the girls had ever been in a limo before and it was for a funeral. I was able to get a company to donate a limo and I even got the owner to provide a woman chauffeur. The last thing I wanted on a special night was a trigger from a male authority figure or something that would make a girl uncomfortable.”

So imagine the faces of these girls. Surprise, you’re going shopping for new outfits! Surprise, you’re going out to a nice restaurant for dinner tonight! Surprise, you’re getting there in a stretch limo! Every girl behaved right and all of them had a blast. The experience taught them important lessons about what is appropriate behavior and how to be responsible to yourself and to your group. It also gave them the chance to just be girls. Laughing, smiling, beautiful teenaged girls.

“The outfits and the dinner, all of that was made possible by a generous family who had just lost their mother. They knew she’d be happy to help my girls. Look, I know these girls have hit some roadblocks and I know some will have hiccups, but for me it’s about them knowing there’s another way. Girl, if you get off track, you know what it is to get on track because it’s been laid out for you. You’ve seen the right direction, now you just need to go that way. We have standards and expectations, but we will never have this house feel like a program. It will feel like home. I need people to understand what these girls do for me. I am in love. I love these girls. I will not give up this battle.”

 

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