The Unfolding: The Uniquely Typical

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Shannon Miller Cox (front and center) and some of her staff at JOH

One by one, the case managers settle into the patio chairs on the back deck of their boss’s home. Each of them is a survivor of some kind of violent trauma  — from sexual assault, to sex trafficking to domestic violence, to homelessness and crime against the LGBTQI.

One woman has tattoos and a nose ring, another has long braids, another purple hair. Five out of the seven staff members are women of color. Two of the case managers have college degrees and one speaks four languages. Perhaps most striking of all: All but two of the women have been previously case managed by JOH’s founder and executive director, Shannon Miller Cox, but have since straddled the chasm from client to that of professionally trained peer leaders, certified case managers and grant writer.

Unique characteristics and professional accolades aside, Cox focuses on something else entirely when she hires and then guides them through the complexities of their daily work.

“You have been carefully chosen for your heart for this work,” Cox tells them.

These staff meetings, which occur every other week, are a powerful look into an organization that refuses to model the cookie-cutter, depersonalizing ways that so often define corporate America. In these meetings, the executive director is openly nurturing, greeting her staff with: “Hi Mama, how you are doing?” Then she listens for the answers.

Here, everyone is invited to share about everything from their struggles with interpersonal relationships to the status of their own mental health, to the struggles and successes of their clients.

At the end of one meeting, everyone took their shoes off, stood barefoot in a circle in the grass, and held hands as everyone was invited to share about what they were grateful for.

One woman who had experienced the invisibility of homelessness, said she was grateful to finally belong to a structure that recognized her as a vital part of its whole. Another woman said she recently realized she was passive aggressive.

The remarks were met with direct eye contact, understanding laughter and most of all, non-judgement.

It is clear that everyone here is especially grateful for her employment. For one thing, helping to guide a woman through trauma in a way that focuses on her resilience instead of shaming her for her collapse, is purposeful and empowering work. For another thing, it is also living wage work — something extremely rare to find among previously incarcerated women, which nearly all of the JOH staff is.

It is noon on a summer day and  the women are enjoying a homemade lunch of grilled cheese and turkey sandwiches that Cox cooked herself.

“I take care of you so that you can take care of our women,” she tells them.

The juxtaposition between the towering Wasatch mountains, the serenity of a nearby horse farm and the issues with which Journey of Hope is currently dealing with, is jarring.

The organization received three new sex trafficking cases in the last three days, Cox tells the women.

“One of them begged us not to ‘give up on me’ ” a case manager shares with the group.

Another case manager talks about how one of her clients asked her to foster her child while she worked to clear through the wreckage of her life.  Clearly, the answer was no — everyone knew that would be a conflict of interest —  but it brought up the question of available affordable housing, of which there is none. So the conversation turned to that topic.

“Money has run out for help outside of city limits for the year,” Cox says regarding housing vouchers for the poor. One hundred percent of Journey of Hope’s clients fall below the federal poverty lines, as virtually all of them are coming out of incarceration or homelessness — or both.

To address the issue, Cox is talking with a Utah County investor who wants to buy sober houses and potentially collaborate with Journey of Hope in running them. Additionally, some of the case managers are working with a realtor to buy homes of their own — achievements that would serve as an example to their clients that a prosperous and stable life after incarceration is not only possible, it is a reality.

Meanwhile, one of the most critical concerns is a JOH client who is dying of stomach cancer. She is self medicating on illegal substances because of severe, life-long trauma and is afraid that if she stops the drugs, she will not be able to tolerate the pain while she is dying. Cox and her staff spoke about counseling the woman about creative alternatives and have secured her a substantial food box from the Bishops Storehouse that she has been cleared to use as a deposit into a group home instead of money she doesn’t have.

After a lifetime of trauma — she grew up in abject poverty and was violently and sexually abused by a family member — one of her greatest wishes is to go to the beach, something she has never experienced.

“She has the most tender heart of anyone you will ever meet,” Cox says, her voice clogged with tears.

The group comes to a close, the women gather their belongings, hug Cox and head back into a world that so acutely needs them.

— By Lori Teresa Yearwood

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