SHERIDAN — When Jeri Lyn Harris moved to Sheridan in November 2015, her life involved many challenges.
Harris had recently gone through a divorce and was raising three young children. Unable to afford a place of her own, Harris and her children lived in close quarters with her sister’s family for a few months.
Harris dealt with an extremely tight budget to make ends meet over the next few years in order to get back on her feet. She utilized many resources around town and came in contact with Community Connections, a referral program that helps connect people to various services around Sheridan County.
That experience came full circle about two months ago when Harris began her job as an AmeriCorps VISTA member working closely with Community Connections and the Sheridan Health Center.
Harris grew up on the Crow Reservation in Montana and said Sheridan has helped her tremendously since she moved.
“Before I was just trying to survive, and I’m thriving now from all the resources here,” Harris said.
In her new role, Harris helps apply for grants and talks with community resources. The job has gone well so far.
“My heart is to help people,” Harris said. “… I can actually say I know exactly how they feel when they come in.”
Community Connections opened its doors in September 2017 for a one-year pilot program. While searching for a new location, it halted services for several months before reopening in February for three days per week at the Sheridan Health Center.
Along with Harris, Community Connections case manager Diane Marshall began her new role in recent months. Marshall lived in Sheridan for nearly four decades, moved away for two-and-a-half years to Colorado Springs and returned a few months ago due in part to the new job.
Marshall enjoys public service and collaboration, so she said the job fit her well.
“I really have a heart and a passion for assisting people in accessing the services they need and helping them gain stability in their lives, making their lives better,” Marshall said.
Marshall usually has contact with between six and eight clients per day. She connects them to various services through different local, state and federal agencies, usually through phone calls. Marshall aids people to a certain extent, but they also must help themselves, something she said the vast majority of clients are willing to do.
“I need to be able to, when somebody comes in, help them with the immediate situation which will get them stabilized today, and then also help them with a plan for tomorrow of how to maintain this without assistance,” Marshall said.
Like Harris, Marshall said Sheridan contains many excellent organizations willing to support citizens in need, but she also noted that many areas can improve. Those include car repair, dental care, more employment options, housing assistance, medical care and legal assistance. She said the most important area is addressing homelessness, something that became more difficult when the Sheridan Community Homeless Shelter closed in September 2017.
“When the shelter closed down, it was just a very difficult situation, because like it or not, there are people who are homeless and need help right now,” Marshall said. “… I haven’t had anyone out on the street in the really rough winter weather not getting help, but I’ve come very close … It shouldn’t be that way. It just shouldn’t. We need a homeless shelter. Period. We just do.”
Marshall has worked in social services for more than 20 years and said there are some misconceptions about the type of people who receive help from Community Connections, many of whom battle addiction or childhood trauma.
“When you understand poverty and you understand what skills people develop to survive, they’re sometimes kind of dysfunctional skills, but that’s what they’ve learned until they learn better,” Marshall said. “… They have violated the law, they’ve done something immoral, but they did it to survive with their illness. So until their illness is treated, they’re going to struggle.”
Marshall said it is imperative not to judge her clients for their pasts and noted that there remains a long way to go to improve mindsets toward people who are homeless or in need of resources.
“This is just my own soapbox, but we need to have an attitude that we’re willing to help people that may not be deserving of help in some people’s eyes,” Marshall said. “I feel that we should reach out to those folks, too, give them a chance with immediate help and the chance to crawl out of their situation into a better, stable, self-sustaining situation, and not spend too much time deciding on who deserves it and who doesn’t … Understand drug addiction and alcoholism, and that it is a disease. It’s not that people aren’t responsible, but they also do things as a result of having the disease that they wouldn’t do otherwise.”
Harris agreed and said people can’t understand the realities of homelessness unless they have experienced the desperation firsthand.
Marshall and Harris acknowledged that some people misuse need-based financial programs, but that doesn’t mean communities should stop serving people who need assistance.
“As much as we wish there wasn’t people that took advantage of the system and we’d like to stop that, the reality is we can’t cut off the nose to spite the face,” Marshall said.
Marshall must remind herself to assist her clients with what they want rather than what she wants for them, but those can sometimes be at odds with each other.
She has had difficult conversations with people who hesitate to make changes for a variety of reasons, which is one of the more challenging parts of her job.
“Even if I kind of have to get hard-line with them, they know that I’m doing that for the right reasons and not because I’m judging them or condemning them,” Marshall said. “… Some people, you’re going to do things for them that they are not going to appreciate, that they’re not going to really take and change their life, (at least) not right away. It may be down the road, but if you believe in them, then they start thinking about these things. But if they come to you and you’re kind of judgmental and hesitant, it’s going to have a different outcome.”
Marshall said the best aspect of her job involves seeing the palpable sense of relief on clients’ faces when they realize they will receive some help. Some people are scared or uncertain when they initially meet with Marshall, so she can guide them in the right direction.
“When someone comes in here and they’re feeling so desperate, and just talking to them and letting them feel heard and supported and being able to offer some relief to their situation,” Marshall said. “It’s just so gratifying to see that look on their face that they get and the deep breath that they take.”
Although she doesn’t work directly with Community Connections clients, Harris said the most rewarding part involves sharing her story and connecting with people.
“I try to tell people when they come through or I have the opportunity to visit with them, is, ‘I know how you feel, I know where you’re at, but be encouraged because I should have been a statistic,’” Harris said. “… I feel like I’m bridging that gap.”
For Harris and Marshall, the positions entail challenging work, but they bring hope and passion for improvement.