The best part of FSS.

It happened again today.  A resident came to enroll in Family Self-Sufficiency and by the way he walked through the door I could see defeat in his stance and frustration in his eyes.  It’s a hard thing to support a family of five on less than $25,000 a year. Harder still to realize that the way out involves steps that would seem overwhelming to the most motivated among us.

Sometimes it seems like the best part of operating an FSS program is watching people reach their goals.  I’m guessing it’s a little like the coach sitting on the sidelines, watching the scores total up on the board every time a player makes a goal or a basket.

Good coaches, however, look to a wider view.  Of course it is great to see a star performer develop his or her skills.  And who wouldn’t want to see that same performer grow his or her career to the point where the player stands out in their field? But good coaches try to enhance the learning and development of everyone on their team.

At the BHA’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program, we enroll residents at the rate of one or two a month.  Not everyone will become a successful graduate, of course.  But maybe that’s OK. Maybe we need expand our definition of success to include several layers of growth.

The most successful coaches look beyond the scoreboard and notice the player who once was too clumsy to be trusted with the ball, or too emotional to be effective on the court.  Those are the coaches who, at the end of their career, are as pleased with the everyday student’s accolades as they are to hear their name mentioned by a player who reached stardom.

Rather than add to the frustration and defeat that a resident feels, we’ve learned to adopt a strength-based approach.  It helps if we turn their weaknesses into strengths.   It’s easy to find the impatient, unrealistic, disorganized side of someone.  Dave Kerpen, CEO, Likeable Local, NY Times Best-Selling Author & Keynote Speaker, suggest we train ourselves to think of those characteristics as being passionate, positive, or creative.

The result is immediate.  Suddenly people who were feeling discouraged straighten up and begin sharing ideas on how they think they could succeed.  It’s like the light comes on in their eyes and in their minds.

This is the event we’ve come to appreciate.

This woman always makes us smile!

Shamika-UsraySeveral months ago, when Shamika graduated from all forms of government assistance, we happily published her story.  It is an uplifting tale, to say the least, and it had a big impact upon our residents and our Family Self-Sufficiency Participants.

When she grew her income to the point where she is no longer eligible for assistance from HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, Shamika bounced into the FSS office with a big smile on her face.  “Get out your camera,” she sang out, “I’m ready to be a witness.”

As the story of Shamika’s path to self-sufficiency unfolded, we could see the reason for her confidence and good spirits.  Her journey to self-sufficiency had taken several twists and turns, but Shamika had finally reached the point where she could fully support her family.

Of course we published Shamika’s accomplishments.  As dramatic as this story is, however, it is only one of 65 such achievements that we are happy to promote when asked.   

The real story, however, is what happens when we tell our resident population about someone like Shamika.

Just a few weeks ago our next future graduate dropped into the Family Self-Sufficiency office, carrying a post card with Shamika’s photograph and recount of her journey. “I’d like to sign up for this program,” Lisa announced.  “I can do this.  I want to be like Shamika.”

FSS is only limited by our own thoughts.

If you ask me, it all started with Temple’s parents. They were told their daughter didn’t fit the accepted range of normal, and they were advised to institutionalize the little girl.  But the parents of this special woman did not listen.  To me, it looks like that act alone opened a few doors for little Temple.

It is also remarkable to me that at least one or two teachers did not listen either.  Working in a bureaucracy sometimes means that the “tall poppy” runs risk of being told to step back.  So when I heard that some of Dr. Grandin’s teachers held higher expectations for her, treated her as if she could succeed beyond normal expectations, or changed their teaching methods to meet her needs, I was immediately intrigued.

According to more than one thought-leader, it can be a pretty potent motivator to stay small and safe.   FSS programs have some additional concerns: the rules that govern us are deliberately vague, allowing for interpretation that meets local resources and individual family needs.  Sometimes we fill in the gray areas with our own invented rules, hoping to bring order and structure where it might not really be needed. 

At the Brockton Housing Authority, we’ve learned to listen carefully to the messages we give ourselves and our residents. Whenever any of us make statements that speak to lesser abilities of our residents, or our own lower expectations for them, or any view that appears to limit the range and heights to which our residents can travel, this might be an indication the staff needs a little TLC.  The real issue might be fear of success. 

The causes of disorder are several, according to But if we can help ourselves identify just what it is we fear, we may in turn be able to teach residents how to turn off that negative voice we all sometimes hear in our heads – the one that says not to reach, not to over-extend, not to elevate our skills or dreams.  And when we lose that negative voice in our heads, we become part of a real team – the kind that helps a young autistic woman discover how to change the world.

Learn More…