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Shelter worker helps homeless find hope

March 03, 2011|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI | alnotarianni@aol.com
  • For her internship for a master's degree through the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, Jill Parker works as a case manager at the REACH Cold Weather Shelter.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

An internship is commonly thought of as an opportunity to get some practical training. During her internship at the REACH Cold Weather Shelter, Jill Parker got plenty of that.

But more striking than what she got from her internship is what she gave through it.

Parker, 27, of Hagerstown, volunteered a couple of times at the shelter with her church during high school. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in social work, she landed a job as a resource specialist at REACH.

Her duties included managing the shelter and the crisis program, which dealt with eviction, housing utilities and medication issues.

Parker briefly worked full time for another agency, then returned to REACH part time and began studying for a master's degree through the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

It was during that time that Parker, other REACH staff, and the board of directors began considering the feasibility of offering case-management services. The idea was to have a case manager meet one-on-one with shelter residents to provide in-depth assessment in an effort to resolve homelessness.

"We definitely saw the need," Parker said. "It just so happened that I had to do an internship. I thought if I started a pilot program, it might become a good way to continue working for REACH long term."

Putting in about 16 hours per week for her unpaid internship, in addition to her part-time job, Parker set a goal to find permanent housing for at least 15 shelter residents during the seven-month shelter season. She met her goal.

Jodie Stock, REACH executive director, said the program was so successful that board members decided to adopt it as a strategic plan. Case management became a formal program for the first time this shelter season with Parker at the helm.

So far this year, 189 people have stayed at the shelter. Parker has helped 30 of them find permanent housing or placement in treatment programs.

"(Parker) got the program up and running," Stock said "She is executing it and doing a fabulous job."

Parker is no stranger to obstacles in life. Born with spina bifida, she is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair. Still, she studied dance as a girl and joined the Smithsburg High School marching band as a teen.

"Sure, (being paralyzed) is definitely an obstacle," Parker said. "But I try not to look at it that way. I hope that when most people meet me, and I think this is true, that they don't think of me as  somebody with a disability. Because I don't make that my main focus."

Parker's optimism translates well as she works with people from various walks of life, including those who have lost lucrative jobs, and others coping with mental illness or addiction.

"By the time they come to us, they've lost a lot of hope," Parker said. "It's neat to see that little by little, they can start to regain some confidence and see that they do have options and they do have hope."

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