“If I can be a voice, that’s what I was meant to be in this world”
-Jennie Vega, Social Services Manager, Oasis - A Haven for Women and Children
Who are you, what do you do, and why (do you do it)?
“I wanted to break the cycle that my grandmother went through, that I also went through, watching her struggle. Just in general, asking questions and seeking resources. I remember being that child that had to translate for my grandmother, and watching people laugh and smirk at her hurt me. A social worker has a unique and privileged opportunity to assist people to claim their rights and also improve their circumstances. My grandmother went through so much and didn’t have someone to advocate for her. Seeing her go through those struggles and not finding solutions to her situation helped me realize that people need help, and if I can be a voice, that’s what I was meant to be in this world.”
What are some of the organization's recent successes? What are the initiatives that Oasis is leading on currently?
“There’s so much that we do, where do I start? On a basic day here at Oasis, we open the doors officially at 8:15 am, where we provide women and children with a hot breakfast, so that allows a lot of our women and community to come in and get a warm meal before they go to work or take their child to school. We then provide our community members with a hot lunch at 12 pm, which again gives them an opportunity to actually be able to sit somewhere and build relationships with the other women in the community, which I feel is super important. We provide adult education classes, like GED, citizenship classes, ESL classes, computer classes. Oasis is so flexible that we’re able to adapt to whatever the need is within our community. If the women come to us and tell us that it would be great to have a certain type of class, we’re able to do so, which ultimately helps the community in general. We assist our community with food bags, clothing, and baby items. In the social service department if a client comes through our front door and just needs help translating a letter that they received, or filling out an application, or making phone calls, or generally communicating when they’ve had difficulty before, we come in and assist the clients with that voice. Our hours are usually 8:15 am to 2:30 pm. After 2:30, it becomes a program for kids. We have our afterschool program where we service about 100 children, a teen boy teen teen girl program, and in the summer, we have a summer camp.
We’re all over the place in a great way, but we try to help in whatever way we can. During the pandemic a lot of the kids had to stay home for a full year so bringing them back in and providing them with support, love, and nurture has always been our goal as well as our community members’. We’re doing a lot, we have a new mommy series that we’re starting, the program will provide mothers with access to resources. When we finally opened our doors after the pandemic, we received a lot of phone calls, and a lot of the women that came in were actually informing us about how hard it was to get access to healthcare and things like that. We’ve identified that that’s one of their big needs, and that we can be that bridge for them. We’re actually hosting a community baby shower to kick it off! Last time we had one, about 90 women came and it was a full baby shower. I think the most important thing was them building a community among themselves. A lot of women have come to us and said that they’re on their own and don’t have a lot of family, so helping them build that community is very important.
We just expanded our childcare facility on the first floor, so now we can take care of more children. A perk now is that we have a rooftop garden, so we’re really excited to facilitate workshops outside. And guess what- we have a new wellness center so we’re going to have yoga classes, parenting classes, etc. The expansions of the rooms have given us access to service as many people as we can. We actually also have a new thrift store in the building called The Nest. One of the great things about it is that we have a retail internship program that is funded by the sale of gently used clothes to our community members for cheaper prices. It’s a 10-week program that will train women in retail, customer service, and other skills to prepare them to go into a retail workforce, put something on their resume, or just a general place to be."
What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally, especially being a part of the social justice movement in NJ?
“Women’s History Month means so much to me. It reminds me to remember and honor the women who have paved the way for me, like my grandmother, my mentor, my ancestors. But it also reminds me to not forget that there’s also a lot more work that needs to be done, and I should definitely be part of it. It makes me really sit down and think about everyone who’s fought for women to be in the positions that they’re in. I can’t even identify someone in particular because so many crucial people took part in creating where I am today."
How do you embed social change and social Justice into your work as a social services provider?
“As a social worker, one of my goals is to provide the client with advocacy. When a social worker engages in social change, or works with women and children, they do what they can to make sure that our clients are treated like human beings with respect in that whole entire process. Allowing the right people to hear them out is so important because that’s where social justice lies. It’s part of a social worker’s professional responsibility to be that advocate. As much as we hear people say that social workers are superheroes, I don’t view it as that. I see it as our responsibility to be that voice. Working hard to achieve that kind of social change for women and children is really difficult, but at the end of the day it is our responsibility. Our job is never done- we live it and see it every day. We do this for everyone, including ourselves.”
Tell us your favorite story that reminds you of why you do this work?
“When I first started at Oasis, there was a woman who had come in who seemed as if she was very upset and frustrated. She had just applied for services through an agency, but was told that she needed an interpreter because the only person to help her spoke English. She didn’t have any community support or any family to help her, so when I saw her at Oasis, I asked to just go with her, however, the agency still denied me as an interpreter thinking that I was a personal interpreter and not knowing that I was with my own agency. So what was the point of telling her to get her own? It seemed to me that there was a lot of miscommunication throughout the office, and it felt like we were both being mistreated. After asking to speak with a supervisor, they realized that Oasis had a very close relationship with this agency, and I immediately got an apology. I then spoke to the first person that serviced us and made the point to tell them that they shouldn’t have to know who I am or where I work to treat their customers with respect. It reminded me of being a child ith my grandmother at these services and not being able to advocate for her the way I can as an adult. I just couldn’t believe that we were experiencing the same thing years later. After this, she brought me coffee using her own savings, something that made me think of what my ancestors, my grandma, and even my mentor had gone through just to be heard- that cup of coffee was everything to me. Six years later, she still comes to visit and brings me coffee.”
As a direct service provider, how do you take care of yourself or counter vicarious trauma?
“Being completely transparent, I’m still working on identifying those things too. What I will say though is that I do have a great support system where I can go back and tell people how I’m feeling. I like to go on long walks on the beach year round, as crazy as that sounds. But I honestly have yet to identify how I’ve been taking care of myself because I really feel like this is just part of me. It never feels like I really need to take care of myself, but I know I have to. Being able to feel the feelings that I am and allowing myself to grieve definitely helps me out with it. “
What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many people know?
“I love to collect antique tea cups! I talk a lot about my grandmother, she was really my drive, the one who took care of me, and she loved pretty antique cups, so when people would come, she could serve them and it felt like she had a lot. We would go to thrift stores together and would buy one cup, and I stayed with that. Now, at least twice a month I go to antique shops everywhere just to find one teacup. I have a total of 35 porcelain tea cups! Just talking about it right now, maybe one day I’ll host a conference and we can use the teacups.”
Who inspires you?
“Obviously, my family and my children. But also, my community. When I see my community members sharing their knowledge and their skills and ideas and the way that they come together to help one another- honestly, that’s the true meaning of community and that just reminds me of how resilient they are. Where I am today is because I had a community of people who pushed me here, who empowered me, so they inspire me every day. Every time I see someone get up early in the morning after working late hours to take their child to school and give them love- that’s inspiration to me.”
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