Welcome to our Changemaker Profiles blog series! Each edition we profile one outstanding social changemaker from the JVA client community. By sharing the stories of some of the incredible people we get to work with every day, each accomplishing extraordinary work in nonprofits, government, social enterprise and elsewhere, we hope we will bring a little light and inspiration to your day!
For this edition, we spoke with Vicki Ramirez, recently retired chief deputy executive officer of Shiloh House, who founded the organization with her husband and now CEO, Steven Ramirez, in 1985. Vicki officially retired on March 15 but has continued to provide significant support to the team. Shiloh House offers a continuum of care for children, youth and families who are working to overcome the impact of abuse, neglect, trauma, or family crisis. Its more than a dozen services include residential treatment, educational day treatment, short-term shelter care, coaching, support for youth aging out of foster care and more.
1. Tell us about your organization and the social change you are trying to achieve.
“There has been so much that we have endeavored to accomplish in our 40 years in this field. Of course, the No. 1 thing we have always tried to accomplish is to break the cycle of kids repeating the trauma that has been done to them. We feel a huge responsibility to do our part to educate folks on how important it is to have us on that rock.”
“We have dealt with that ‘not in my backyard,’ scenario for years. Therefore, it’s imperative to help people understand that they need us helping kids in their community. Someday these kids may very possibly be living next door to you, with or without treatment.”
“Trust me on this, considering the trauma that the children of today have experienced, the treatment they receive in programs such as ours could quite possibly make the difference in whether or not they will be able to be become productive members in their community.
“‘Community: It’s what we are, it’s where we are’ has become our slogan over the years, because of how our programs have evolved. In the beginning, our program was 16 residential kids and six staff, Steven and I being two of them. However, we currently have six campuses with five schools and 200 kids and 16 staff. We expanded our services to include residential, day treatment, evening reporting, rapid response and many community in-home services, as well as outpatient therapy.
“Additionally, we have developed a program that we are all passionate about. This program was created due to something that happened to one of our residents many years ago when he was discharged from one of our houses. The children that come through foster care, as we know, quite often do not have families. This particular young man decided to go out on his own to Washington state. He was a Type 1 diabetic that ended up homeless in Washington. As some of you may know, when a diabetic’s sugars get low, they appear to be drunk. When he came to the attention of law enforcement, they determined he was drunk and left him on the streets. The consequences of this was him dying on the streets. Most children when turning 18 are not mature enough to go out on their own. However, that is what happens within the foster care system.
“Our desire from that moment on was to establish a program that could wrap a support system around these individuals. It took several years and a great deal of fundraising, but our Beyond the Walls program started out with six kids that emancipated from the foster care system. We started the program for the youth to have their own coach to help with balancing their check book, finding a place to live, finding a job and many other things to help them succeed.
“On top of that, they also have mentors that come in and work with them. The goal is to stand in the gap. We can never be actual parents to these kids, but we can be instrumental in helping with Christmas presents, birthday gifts as well as the mentor or coach may help with any medical needs or obtaining a Social Security Card if needed or whatever it takes. The most important thing is to make sure they know they have someone they can count on.”
2. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?
“I think one of the things that inspires me the most is when I look at a staff member that has been thrown to the ground by a kid, spit on or punched. They still get themselves together and care for the kid that turned around and punched the wall, hurting themselves. When the staff member’s main concern is the clear welfare of the child, it causes me to be in awe of them. I marvel at them because they do not have an easy job.
“One of the most significant things that has kept me going throughout the years is when an old resident comes back and says to me, ‘I didn’t believe you then, but I believe you now,’ or even more exciting to me is when a departing child says, ‘Shiloh House has changed my life!’ That really makes my heart soar.
3. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break new ground in a traditional field?
“We give advice all the time. When I first started, I thought I could save the world. I adopted kids and fostered kids and was sure I would make all the difference in the world. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t.”
“I tell the staff: ‘You can influence any child’s life even if you are with them a short period of time.’ If you tell a child, ‘I believe in you, I believe you are a good person, you have great potential and I know you can turn your life around,” he will remember you. By the same token, if you tell the child, ‘You suck’ or send him the message in any way shape or form that you think he sucks, he will also remember you. Now, how do you want to be remembered?”
“I also tell people that they always must be willing to change. Most importantly, you must always figure out ways to think out of the box. One of the things to remember while working with these kids is that every day is a new day. You cannot hold against them what they did the day before. Be willing to forgive. Be prepared that someone above you will be making a decision that doesn’t make sense to you, but the overall mission is something you don’t want to lose sight of. Foster care is a moving and changing force, and you need to be ready to re-invent yourself continuously, but if you are willing, you will have to look long and hard before you find a more rewarding profession.”
4. What book do you recommend to everyone you meet and why? OR What book is on your to-read list and why?
“I was just recommended a book yesterday by a clinician. It’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about how to change your playing field. … Several times Shiloh House has faced battles where it felt like we were the David—and I think the person who recommended the book knows that. The author uses the example of a lawyer with dyslexia and how he compensates by strengthening his listening skills.
“We have had to compensate many times on many levels. Originally, we were in Southwest Denver with all the big, well-funded players, and no one knew who we were. I wanted to provide a childcare treatment facility at a cost-effective price in a homelike environment. I remember when managed care started and no one would let us in their network, because we were so small. However, we had a vision. There were 66 providers about five years ago, and now there are 17. We are currently one of the larger ones.”
5. How have you worked with JVA, and how has that helped your organization?
“We started contracting with JVA two years ago. Because we have very limited funds, we spent a small amount on grantwriting. One of the grants we were awarded turned out to be the second-largest grant we have ever received, from Colorado Health Foundation. This grant provides Beyond the Walls life skills and artistic expressions to create healing, for our residential programs.
“The grants are now almost completely paying for Beyond the Walls. When it started, there was one coach and now there are eight and we are serving approximately 150 kids that live in their own homes and receive backup from our coaches and mentors. The grant money has directly helped those kids become successful adults and truly break the cycle of trauma. JVA has been instrumental in this.”
6. What else would you want to share with us that we haven’t asked?
“Well, to say I’m retiring is kind of a joke. There are still things I want to be involved in, and I am still on the board. Our youngest daughter became a licensed clinical social worker, and now she’s getting her nonprofit management master’s at Regis, and she’s been working for us for 12 years. She is now taking my place and will eventually be taking my husband’s place, when he retires. So, our legacy will continue.”
“Every time I wanted to quit, I would ask myself, ‘What would I rather go do?’ I would quickly realize that there was nothing out there that would keep me more stimulated and there is nothing I would rather do.”
“To be honest, at times it has been a challenging road because we are always striving to be better, which is why it has been difficult to walk away. However, I am leaving it to a very competent team, and I am eager to see what they do with it in the future. It has been a wonderful journey that I was very blessed to take. I think I am in an enviable position in that I am almost 71 and I have very few regrets.
“Lastly, I would like to remind everyone that there is a dire need for mentors as well as volunteers to come into the homes. There is also a huge need for people that have skills that can help at the various campuses. Remember, anything that it takes to run your home it takes the same to run our homes but on a bigger scale. If you have any special skill set, please contact us at shilohhouse.org to help.”