In the Time of COVID-19: SOARing with Soul Food

By Jon Katherine Martins, SOAR Practitioner and Local Lead, Emma Norton Services

The importance of chemistry between client and SOAR case manager is undeniable. One of the hallmarks of Emma Norton’s SOAR program is our ability to build trust and rapport with the men, women, and children we serve. When I started to work from home, I was worried about the difficulties I would have accurately tracking shifting emotions, facial expressions, or body language via video chat and how impossible that would be when meetings could only happen over the phone. I was also concerned that I might come across as more clinical and less warm or empathetic, making it much more challenging to build rapport and trust.

My first client, on my first day working from home, was new to me. I knew, from his referral form, that he experienced a personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. By the end of our first meeting, I learned that he had spent time in prison. And I heard something else. His voice was flat, expressionless, and apathetic, with interspersed moments of agitation when I asked a question that he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer. “I don’t trust people,” he said.

How to breakthrough, I thought. How do I make a connection? Then it dawned on me. Listening isn’t the same as hearing. I had definitely heard him loud and clear—he didn’t trust anyone. But had I really listened? Listening means paying attention not only to the story but how it is told, the use of language, the use of voice. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. My ability to listen effectively would depend on the degree to which I perceived and understood his messages.

At our next meeting, we worked on his adult functioning report. Again, I listened to the severe reduction in emotional expressiveness. I listened, as I asked the questions on the form, for any clue. And then, a hint emerged. My client had the lilting quality of a voice from the south. I asked him where he grew up. His voice brightened a bit as he told me about being raised by his grandmother in Georgia. And then the flood gates opened. When I asked him if he prepared meals, his entire demeanor changed as he regaled me with colorful tales of fried chicken with macaroni and cheese, collard greens, fried okra, hushpuppies, cracklins, chitterlings, ham hocks, black-eyed peas, banana pudding, and cobbler. His grandmother had passed down the love of soul food to him and taught him how to cook it. It seemed to anchor him.

And as I listened, I understood why. My client had spent more than half his life alone in a prison cell in Georgia—23 hours a day. The cell was so narrow he could reach his arms out and touch both walls at once. He was diagnosed with several severe mental health conditions before entering prison. While in prison, no care was provided. Little things would trigger him, and he’d react violently. Although he’d been sentenced to prison initially for robbery, his sentence was extended over and over for assaults on prison staff. He spent most of his 17-year prison sentence in restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, where he engaged in self-mutilation and tried to hang himself. He’d been out of prison for more than 2 years, coming to Minnesota to build a new life. But his many years spent in solitary confinement still haunted him. “I don’t sleep right, “ he told me. “Any little thing triggers something in me.“

“And what happens when you can’t sleep right or when something triggers you?”

“I cook me up a pot of something. It’s my touchstone. It reminds me of the good parts of me.”

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen said, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.” Since that cold, late March morning, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t get a text message with a picture of some beautiful, soul-inspired concoction or the perfectly plated poetry of a soul-food dinner created by my client’s hands. I look forward to them. Each picture is a gift born of the love of a grandmother, the heritage of a people, the legacy of a place, the pain and suffering of a person in the criminal justice system, and all the good parts of a grandson. I look forward to them and the opportunity to message back with attention and gratitude.

Client Update!

This client has a Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS). He is putting the money he is making at a soul food restaurant into his PASS so that he can pursue his goal of taking business classes to open his own restaurant. He is enrolled in classes now! The owner of the restaurant he works for was so impressed with his soul food cooking skills that the owner bought him a used food truck and is helping the client fix it up so that he can “take his show on the road.” In the corner of the banner that will go on the truck is a dedication to my client’s grandmother, who taught him how to cook. Isn’t that something!