For the last several weeks the Urban Ministry Center blog has featured stories about our staff members and the excellent work they do. We hope you enjoy learning about our team members and what they love about UMC.
Screensavers on the backgrounds of desktops flashed lazily in the SABER computer area while Bob and I discussed his work. Here in Charlotte, Bob is a long way from the two stoplight town of East Forks, Minnesota, where he grew up. After undergrad, Bob worked at a series of nonprofits, from Big Brothers, Big Sisters to programs teaching individuals with mental and developmental illnesses. While getting his Masters in Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he worked as a research assistant for the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) Homeless IV study. It was here that Bob met Dr. Marilyn Furman. Marilyn and Bob agreed that the abstinence contingent housing program pioneered by NIDA was a great model. Marilyn wanted to implement this model in her hometown in Charlotte, and with the blessing of everyone at UMC, SABER was born. Marilyn invited Bob to join the team, and he has been the SABER Toxicology/Job Training Director since the beginning.
SABER provides abstinence contingent housing and works in conjunction with Housing First, addressing a homeless population with different needs. The fact that SABER provides housing is very unique. Bob discusses how receiving the keys to an apartment can be a turning point for recovering addicts, “like they almost needed to be trusted in order to trust themselves.” In Bob’s roles he does not have extensive one on one time with the clients, but he still gets to know them well through small day to day interactions. The job training and computer skills that Bob shares with clients are very important, as many individuals who come to SABER have been unable to work for an extended period of time and need to relearn how to operate in a work environment. When Bob first started, there were clients who “had never touched a mouse or keyboard.” SABER still occasionally receives guys “that have lived in the woods or something like that and they don’t know what to do.” There are also individuals with very advanced skills who know how to program.
Bob and other SABER staff provide more than training and recovery tools. “One of the things the guys talk about is that they feel like this is a very family environment.” It provides a space for people to open up and to heal. “To see people grow and change” as they recover “is just very inspiring, and I find it frankly heroic.” Working with SABER also requires a great deal of compassion and strength. “When someone disappears and never comes back that hurts. I think if it ever stopped hurting that would be a sign that you needed to get out- if you stopped caring.”
The burdens of the work are lightened by the SABER team and the greater UMC community. “Just to know you’re all working towards that mission adds meaning to work and another level of meaning to life.” Bob mentions how willing coworkers are to lend a hand or give advice. Bob also notes how fun it is just to chat with coworkers or learn about their hobbies. “Like that Beth, she does these different puzzles and things. I’ve never worked at a place where there are so many people of such diverse and unusual talents.” Bob has some interesting talents of his own. For example, he clicker and leash-trains cats. His cat Nikola “can do tricks like sit, shake hands, give me five, up down, he rolls over, he stands like this.” Bob held his hands up like paws to illustrate. Bob also trains for unusual feats of strength. He has set multiple 83kg weight class world records and is in the Grip Hall of Fame. He can also vertically rip a regular-sized Charlotte phone book into multiple sections. He laments that he could be better if he “had more than about five per year to practice with.” So send your old phone books his way! Residents in the SABER program are always vying for him to show off these skills at their talent show. We are grateful to Bob and others for sharing their exceptional talents with UMC!