Grad student combats homelessness with Salvation Army

A graduate student at the University of Central Missouri landed a job that has helped diversify her experience as an individual and a student.

Eliza Ridenhour is pursuing a Master of Science in clinical mental health counseling. She also works with the Salvation Army as their caseworker.

Ridenhour said caseworker is an interesting term because she does more than just casework.

“My office hours are reserved for meeting with clients from the Johnson County area who have encountered hardship and are in need of a helping hand,” Ridenhour said. “The goal of the Salvation Army is to give a ‘hand up,’ which means that rather than simply providing a Band-Aid solution for a long-term problem, I try to work alongside these individuals in order to see if we can find a path that will benefit them in the long run.”

Some of Ridenhour’s tasks include connecting people with a variety of resources, such as emergency financial assistance with utility bills, rent, food and clothing.

She said her role in the community encourages her to actively network with other agencies in the area who may provide useful services to her clients.

Ridenhour began graduate school in the fall of 2017. When looking for a job, she said she wanted one that would help her understand different individuals.

“I had always known the Salvation Army as an organization that had thrift stores and raised funds through the Red Kettle Campaign, but I had never realized the work that they did in the community through their family services office,” Ridenhour said.

She said in talking with people that many other people are also unaware of the group’s family services program.

After doing some research about the Salvation Army, a unique opportunity came up for her.

“When the job opening for a caseworker came up on my internet search, I was automatically intrigued,” Ridenhour said.

As intriguing and interesting as it’s been, she said the work does come with some difficulties.

“I think the hardest part of almost any helping profession can often be the feeling that the job is never done,” she said. “I know that there are days where it feels like our door never closes, and this is because the need, even in our small community, is so great. It is difficult and humbling to see individuals who work hard to make ends meet only to find that they still need help.”

Ridenhour said that once most of her clients come to the office, it’s their last resort.

“I can’t tell you how many individuals come in and begin their meeting with me by apologizing and continue to apologize until they leave,” Ridenhour said. “I would say that they are feeling guilt or possibly even shame regarding their circumstances. My heart goes out to them, and I tell them the truth: ‘We all have times in our life that we need help.’ I just get to be the vehicle by which that help comes.”

This does lead to the most rewarding part of the job for her — the donations they receive to help fund their services, usually through their Red Kettle Campaign in the winter.

Ridenhour said she is lucky because she gets to see the impact that even a little help can provide to a person in need.

“I would say that working with the volunteers that come into my office is also one of the greatest honors I have,” she said.

Ridenhour said she believes, like many groups, the homeless community is stereotyped.

She said a lot of times there is a concern that helping homeless individuals could continue the “homeless problem.”

“The truth is that homelessness isn’t a choice and most of these individuals are working diligently toward housing and stability,” Ridenhour said. “The trouble is that when basic needs such as food, shelter, safety, etc. are not being met it is hard for anyone in such a state to look too far beyond their next meal.”

She said some myths are that these individuals are lazy, which she has found to be untrue.

“Employment, even when obtained, can still have barriers like transportation,” Ridenhour said. “There are many things that we take for granted, but anyone can become homeless,” she said. “This is not something that only happens to a certain portion of people.”

There are always people who want to help, and Ridenhour said there is always something people can do.

She said those who cannot donate money can donate their time, which can be just as helpful.

“Currently we are in the midst of bell ringing season,” Ridenhour said. “The Red Kettle Campaign is responsible for the vast majority of funds that are distributed back to Johnson County residents who are in need during the year. We are always in need of bell ringers during this time of year.”

She said other ways to get involved include helping to sort items in the thrift store at 125 N. Holden St. or even help with the front desk in the family services office at 123 N. Holden St.

“One of the things that I love about Warrensburg and the Johnson County area in general is the desire and commitment that many of its members have to help those around them,” Ridenhour said. “I consider myself truly blessed to be a part of such a caring community.”

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