Work Stories: Walter Wittwer's learning-from-the-least calling

Welcome to the newest post in a brand new series of guest posts on the subject of our everyday work lives. For the remaining weeks of Ordinary Time, I’ve invited some friends to share a one-day snapshot into their work life that will help us see what they know to be true right now about who they are made to be.

Today's guest, Walter, and his wife, Karen, have become dear to Brian and me since our move to Connecticut just over two years ago. Walter's love for God and for people makes me glad to be a Christian. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone more open to giving and receiving mercy than Walter. It’s a characteristic he demonstrates in every setting. Until this post, I didn’t know much about his daily work, and as I read, it makes perfect sense. Of course, our mercy-giving Father would lead Walter into this work. And may our good Father sustain him through all of the challenges of serving the least of these and those who care for them that each day brings.

Caring for the least of these is not limited to those in social work. We’re all called (and I love how Walter reminds us that we’re also all on the spectrum of need). May we look around our places of work and be encouraged through Walter’s story for God’s mercy to flow through us.

p.s., You can read more about Walter’s journey as a chaplain, prison minister, reader of good books, and writer of poetry at his blog

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After more than 40 years, there still is no typical day. Anybody whose work focus is people knows that they are unpredictable and make each day unpredictable. I think to give a full flavor of this work I need to address this from three different levels. The individuals served, the people providing direct service, and my role.

I stumbled into this work in 1976. You would think that having a degree in Psychology would not make this a stumble but a natural path. But from 1968-1972, every psych class I took dealt exclusively with mental illness, not mental retardation as it used to be called.

People with Developmental Disabilities are often misunderstood by the general public, usually grouped with people with psychiatric issues. Although there can certainly be overlap, one does not mean the other.

Sample of apartment home

Sample of apartment home

I have moved from trainee, beginning level status to Executive Director of a small agency and now back “down.” I have worked in vocational, at home and residential settings and worked every shift.

Presently I provide oversight for five addresses, ranging from a one-person, almost independent setting to a seven person 24-hour setting including people needing total care physically and/or intellectually. My days are filled with shifting gears between stopping in to say “hi” and checking the accuracy of paperwork for submission for Medicaid payment, playing air guitar with an older gentleman who always tells me of a song from the 40’s or 50’s, who did it, whether it was Side A or B, so I find it on youtube and we have a few minutes of laughs before I go unclog a toilet, help someone who struggles with hoarding move some containers so there’s greater access to them and then talk to someone about making arrangements for Rosh Hashanah.

The reason I love the work is because I love the people. The honesty, the simplicity of their love, and even their anger has taught me much about what’s important and how best to help people move through problems. As I traveled “up the ladder” the lessons I learned were very useful in doing the same for staff.

I’ve always worked in the private sector which cannot pay as well as public agencies. Most direct service professionals work two jobs and are frequently tired and/or stressed. Turnover is high in this field (50%) and we are always short-staffed. As the economy improves, our vacancies go up. You can get far easier work for the same pay, or better. But 40% down in staffing makes everyone’s job tenser than it needs to be. This has not changed much in forty years. It is worse in counties like Westchester compared to Ulster because the salaries vary less than the cost of living. I’ve worked in both and then some and in two states. The great majority of my years were and are in New York state.

Laundry Day at one of the residences.

Laundry Day at one of the residences.

I have learned that what I like best, what I do best and what is most needed are the same thing: ministering to these staff who have a huge and difficult responsibility caring for “the least of these.” They provide care for adults, ranging from changing diapers and showering the individual to helping someone balance a checkbook. Sometimes that requires they learn the skill first themselves.

We all have an IQ and depending where you are on that scale and how well you’ve learned to cope with what that “number” usually represents in terms of skill acquisition and when your developmental delays manifested and how much they impacted your learning, will depend how much care and what kind of care you need. We are complicated organisms and no two of us are alike.

Same goes for those on the autism spectrum, some may be very self-centered, so much so that they are totally turned inward and some not so much; some have great social skills, some not so much. We’re all on the same spectrum. There is not a disabled spectrum and an abled spectrum. There is one spectrum, some are on one end and some on the other and most are toward the center, where it becomes more difficult deciding who needs assistance and who provides assistance.

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I guess I haven’t talked much about day-to-day. This past week I’ve done paperwork (billing documents, petty cash approvals, payroll, plans of protective oversight, goals, etc.), trained staff in required trainings, corrected staff doing for someone who is able to do for himself, prayed with a staff whose son was in an accident, poked at an avid Yankee fan, joked with staff, talked with staff about home ownership, observed dinner procedures and gave corrective instruction, talked to a police sergeant about an individual who was briefly missing, developed new staffing patterns to deal with unexpected behaviors, attended life plan review meetings, talked with someone with autism who struggles with hoarding about how we can help him clean his room so he does not get evicted, and more.

Humans have human problems and sometimes, or maybe most times, need humans to help them solve the problems and celebrate the solutions. Ultimately we’re all the same but our abilities vary. Abilities vary for a billion different reasons, some physical, some mental, some emotional, some developmental, some opportunal (I made this word up but you know what I mean), some ambitional (once I start making up words I can’t stop), and so forth. All by God’s will, though I can’t explain that.

I think we learn the most from people who we think can teach us the least. There is no lesson plan that can teach you as much as someone telling you how they feel, especially if you were involved in facilitating that feeling. I listen, I talk, I love. Those are good. I also get irritated, frustrated and bored. Those aren’t as good.

Preparing a healthy snack

Preparing a healthy snack

Recently I spoke with God a lot about my going into ministry or mission of some sort. He made it clear that I’m to do ministry where I am and that where I am is the mission field. That’s true for everyone, of course. I just needed eyes to see.

Walter Witter is a first-time grandfather, married to lovely Karen, Clinical Team Leader at an agency in Westchester County, NY, responsible to 22 adults in 5 homes, active in Kairos prison ministry, and moving toward vocational diaconate within the Anglican Church through Church of the Apostles in Fairfield, CT. The best way to heal your own wounds is to help others heal theirs

What about your calling?

In what ways are you called to both give and receive mercy?

A song and a prayer for all of us this week

God, Father of the poor,
your Son Jesus was born among us
poor, humble and dependent.
Open our eyes and our hearts and our hands
to honor him now as our Lord and King
by welcoming him in those who are hungry and thirsty,
in all who are abandoned and lonely,
in refugees, in the poor and the sick.
Let our love become free and spontaneous,
like the tenderness you have shown us in your Son.
Welcome us in the everlasting Kingdom
prepared for us through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
— from Liturgies Alive, Models of Celebration

(You can read all of the Work Stories here.)