Small Gestures Add up to Big Wins

By Justin Phillippi, Program Manager, Nyer Urness House

Many people are surprised to learn that most of the residents I work with here at Nyer Urness House are older. On average, they are approximately 55 years old. For most people, that’s not really old, actually. It’s just that our residents at 55 are fast approaching average life expectancy for someone who has been chronically homeless in King County and grappling with end-of-life issues.

This brings a number of interesting realizations for me and my colleagues. When we meet our new residents, we find there is so much life ahead for them. They’ve just landed in stable and safe housing. They’re discovering a new community, a new space to forge human connections, ways to be helpful to others. And after much loss and so many struggles, newfound stability offers what we now call “big wins,” small but meaningful triumphs that many of us might readily overlook.

Sharing Meals and More

Big wins come with human-to-human connection: learning new skills, participating in events, sharing stories, playing games and cooking together. These bonds are so clearly valuable to our residents as they rebuild their lives. My favorite example are meals, nothing is more powerful for bringing people together. It’s not about what you’re making—though making ice cream is pretty popular—and it’s also more than just assembling ingredients and the process of cooking. It’s the accomplishment. It’s doing it together. It’s about sharing something that is good. It puts you in the present. And sometimes when you just need to be with other people, it’s an open door to check in and discover commonality.

Homelessness doesn’t offer someone a lot of space to pursue a hobby. When our residents have found their home, they discover many unique and unexpected ways of recapturing the things that they were missing. Now in a position to help in ways they couldn’t before, they often find creative ways that they can give back too. It’s incredibly empowering. Last New Year’s Eve, they organized a shopping trip and prepared a home-cooked dinner. Then they paired the warm meal with a movie night to provide a respite from the streets for the homeless in our own neighborhood.

I work in a field where victories are hard to come by. New Year’s Eve came after we’d lost a number of residents at Nyer Urness House. The experience of creating and sharing a meal was a hard-won win for our residents, which gave it ever greater meaning. Now, I’m starting to discover more big wins where I didn’t expect them: it’s in someone’s word, when someone reaches out to you. It’s when they tell you about a personal issue, they offer you their trust and in turn, validation for the work I’m doing.

These may sound like small gestures, but I can assure you, they are big wins.