Editor’s note: Sharon Tobias is a local therapist who developed our therapy program at Toni’s Kitchen. She is at Toni’s Kitchen every Thursday helping our guests with critical counseling needs. Sharon has a lot of experience and a deep commitment to the population we serve at Toni’s Kitchen. We asked her to tell us about how she came to Toni’s Kitchen, and her experiences there.
My Volunteer Experience at Toni’s Kitchen
by Sharon Tobias
I learned about Toni’s Kitchen quite a few years ago when my daughter worked as a volunteer while in High School. She often spoke to me about how much she liked getting to know the guests and what a welcoming place Toni’s is. At that time I wasn’t able to commit to a regular volunteer schedule, but I knew that I would participate at some time in the future when my work schedule was lighter.
A few years ago I stopped taking on new referrals in my private practice and was able make time to volunteer on a regular basis. I called (Director of Outreach) Anne Mernin and we talked about possible projects that I could work on using my clinical experience. Anne introduced me to (Toni’s volunteer) Pat Moulton who does a wonderful job coordinating health services at Toni’s and we came up with a plan to introduce me to the guests, which would build the trust needed to establish myself as a therapist in this setting. I began assisting Pat and the volunteer nurses on Thursdays when they provided blood pressure screenings and got to know many of the guests who came regularly for this service. It’s quite natural to discuss stress with someone whose blood pressure is too high, so we talked informally at first and I got to know people. Pat, Anne and I knew that the best way to build trust would be for me to hang around lunch and get to know people little by little. So with input and encouragement from Konstantin (Mental Health Assoc) and Veronique, who supervises the kitchen with great efficiency and love, I became more familiar with the rhythm of the kitchen, guests and volunteers. Once I hung out for a while Anne introduced me as a therapist who would be providing counseling. Soon there were quite a few requests for individual counseling. From there I set up individual sessions.
The challenges that the guests who visit Toni’s kitchen face are the same challenges we all face; trying to live well and provide for ourselves and our loved ones in a fast paced and often unforgiving society, while finding relevance and meaning day to day. The guests whom I’ve worked with during the past year can’t be classified or understood as one homogeneous group, as they are as varied in their personalities, needs, and challenges as any patients I’ve worked with during my career as a psychologist. Unfortunately, the one obvious distinguishing commonality among the guests is that they have come upon hard times and must strive against great odds to secure food and shelter. The causes and conditions that have landed them at Toni’s are quite varied as well. Common problems that we deal with in our therapy (similar to issues dealt with in any therapy practice): identifying the symptoms and causes of suffering, which often involves learning emotional regulation in dealing with mood disorders (bi-polar, depression, anxiety, etc.), self-esteem issues, trauma, and relational issues to name a few.
I’ve experienced first hand the fact that Toni’s Kitchen provides more than just food! The friendly, non-judgmental community atmosphere is both welcoming and fun to be a part of.