NHCW Health Care Hero: Sally Swain

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

On many nights, Sally Swain would go home from her shift at a local social service agency and think about the people she’d met that day.

She remembered the contours of their faces. She mentally catalogued the things they carried with them. She wondered what behavioral health resources were out there to help them. Sometimes, Sally simply sat in awe at how they maneuvered through the reality of being homeless with as much grace as they did. Their stories, she says, captivated her.

“These people were absolutely leaving their mark on me.”

Among the people she got to know, she noticed that those having the hardest time remaining engaged with services, or even keeping their spot at a shelter, were almost always folks living with untreated serious mental illness. Her thoughts drifted toward them most often. Soon, her thoughts translated into action.

Sometimes, Sally simply sat in awe at how they maneuvered through the reality of being homeless with as much grace as they did.

“I started to look into what kinds of jobs help this population and I found that a master’s of social work was the kind of background that would put me in position to do that,” she says.

As the clinical supervisor for one of two Community Outreach Recovery Engagement (CORE) teams at the Old Town Recovery Center (OTRC), Sally puts her concern, passion, and education to work. The CORE team serves adults with major mental illness to help them remain integrated in the community as much as possible. They work with the patients to develop the tools to be active participants in their own lives. Without CORE, these patients would likely be cycling in and out of hospitals, shelters or institutions—much like those whose circumstances nudged Sally into this line of work in the first place.

Sally is often the first person a new CORE client will meet with. Her familiarity with CORE’s patient population—the barriers they face, the services they’ve tried, the goals they have—as well as her gentle Southern charm help her build bridges. Clients learn, many quickly, that she will listen to them, advocate for them, and support them. Some clients who met Sally years ago while she was working at other agencies remember and ask for her by name.

“A lot of times, we’re doing simple tasks that I think give people a chance for greater meaning and connection in their lives,” Sally says. “It can be a lot of fun taking someone to get a haircut or accompanying them to make a phone call.”

Progress—as Sally, her team, and their clients perceive it—isn’t elusive, per se, but it is reimagined beyond typical notions of success. While outcomes are important, the CORE team’s primary aim is to simply be present in the lives of their clients and to support them in any and every way they can.

“In our work, success might be that someone who’s never done mental health treatment before forms one trusting relationship. Maybe it’s someone who’s able to come in and simply ask for what they need,” Sally explains. “At the end of the day, I think that success can be as simple as fostering a relationship between us and the people we’re serving.”

While walking alongside clients opens opportunities to witness and participate in triumphs, it also exposes Sally and her team to disappointments and heartbreak.

“We’re with people in times of great sadness and in times of rejoicing. I’ve been taught so much by our clients about what it really means to weather something.”

“We’re with people in times of great sadness and in times of rejoicing,” Sally says. “I’ve been taught so much by our clients about what it really means to weather something.”

Even after five years at Central City Concern, and more than a decade working with vulnerable populations, she continues to learn that she shares the weight of her work with those around her as they experience the peaks and valleys of their clients’ lives. Having a team around her reminds her how vital it is for clients to know that the CORE team is ready, able, and present to help.

“Every day I find where my limits end and another person’s capabilities start. We find a way to be in this together. I know I’m not alone in this.”