Roberta Machin, BA
When Laurie Richardson was in grade school, she heard a story about Trevor Ferrell, an eleven-year-old boy in Philadelphia who delivered blankets to people sleeping on the street after asking his parents how he could help the homeless. This story prompted Laurie to take an interest in homelessness and helping others, because she was amazed that one little boy could possess so much generosity and kindheartedness. She had always felt drawn to helping that population, and in high school, career aptitude tests indicated that Laurie was well suited for the social work field.
Growing up in suburban Delaware County, Laurie did not see much evidence of homelessness. “But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any homeless individuals there,” she said. “They just weren’t stereotypical. More often than not, the people who were homeless in my town were not ‘bums.’” Even though Laurie did not see very much poverty firsthand, she still liked the idea of helping people. Briefly, Laurie considered becoming a nurse, but she decided she could not administer shots. “I had no stomach for the medical side of it,” she laughed.
Laurie attended West Chester University, and was originally interested in early childhood education, before she began taking social work classes. For one of her classes during her senior year, Laurie did an internship with Safe Harbor, and she realized that this was the kind of work she wanted to do. “It doesn’t get boring,” she said. “There are a lot of different factors that come with being homeless, and you get to work with a variety of people.” Her supervisor at Safe Harbor, Barb Thompson, was someone whom Laurie really admired for her relationship with clients. “She had a very forthright personality,” Laurie said. “She wouldn’t sugar coat anything for the clients. But the clients were ok with it. They sensed her warmness, and knew she was trying to help them. Now I try to take on that personality with the work that I do.”
Currently, Laurie works as a case manager of Independent Living Solutions with Handi-Crafters. Founded in 1961, Handi-Crafters is a nonprofit organization in Thorndale whose goal is to help their clients overcome challenges so they can achieve financial independence. The organization engages with over 400 individuals who struggle with disabilities and mental illnesses, helping them learn life skills through rewarding employment opportunities. They further assist their clients by offering case management. In particular, Laurie works with people with disabilities who are in housing crisis, in order to find them affordable housing options.
When asked about her day-to-day activities at work, Laurie said, “There’s no typical day. Some days I take clients to therapy sessions or help them check into a hotel. Sometimes a crisis comes up that I have to assist with. I spend a lot of time meeting with clients to discuss their situation, and often I drive to their location because no transportation is available for them.”
Laurie has found ways to go above and beyond the parameters of her job, including volunteering for the yearly Point in Time Count, a one night (overnight) census of all the individuals within the county who are street homeless or living in shelters. In addition, she has put collection boxes in her office building during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, asking for donations that can be sent to the homeless shelters or the food bank.
When she first started working at Handi-Crafters, Laurie had no idea that she would be helping clients in such a variety of ways. “I help clients move into new homes, which involves a lot of heavy lifting to get their stuff into the house. I’ve even helped a client change a lightbulb,” she remembers. Despite the occasional twists and turns in her work, Laurie believes that it is important to laugh and have a sense of humor. “Sometimes in a messy situation, you just have to tell yourself, ‘it is what it is,’” she said. “This job is not routine – but that would be boring. I couldn’t do a desk job. With my job, I spend some time in the office writing up my notes, and some time in the community doing outreach. It’s always changing.”
Outside of work, Laurie participates in a nutrition group and toning classes. She enjoys meeting people with similar interests and hobbies, and recently she went rock climbing with a group of friends. Laurie considers raising her daughter to be her greatest success in life. “I’ve tried to teach her that life is not easy, that it has its ups and downs, but it’s important to continue on anyway. You can’t wallow in misery or let things eat away at you – you need to be productive despite what’s going on in your life.”
If Laurie could choose any celebrity to play her in a movie about her life, she would choose Angelina Jolie, because she’s a good actress and pretty. If she could be any animal, she would choose a cat, because they’re sneaky and they have nine lives. She would also consider being a bird, because she would be able to fly over people and observe and analyze them, without them knowing.
Laurie advises people who are thinking about beginning a career in social work to follow their interests. “I could never do business – it would bore the death out of me,” she said. “And you’re not going to make any money in social work. But you can’t choose a job based on money, you have to choose based on what you like.” Laurie explained that in social work, it’s important to have a ‘go with the flow’ attitude. “You can’t let what clients say or do get to you. Let it go, or you will become burned out quickly.”
Within Chester County, Laurie admits that while the goal of ending homelessness is admirable, it might not be too realistic. “We don’t live in a perfect world,” she said. “You can’t control people. They’re going to make their own decisions. And mental health/illness is unpredictable, and long term treatment is difficult, financially.” Laurie believes that the high cost of living accounts for the amount of individuals currently homeless. Despite this, Laurie has heard from many clients that Chester County has a wonderful social service system with a lot of useful resources. “A lot of other counties don’t have these kinds of services,” she said. “In Chester, we’re doing our part to eliminate as much homelessness as we can.”