A while ago, P.T., a member of The Well Community, was asked, “What makes The Well a special place?” He listed a number of things such as being treated as a human being, having a safe place to go to and having spiritual as well as practical needs met. Then he paused and added, “Really, it’s the staff.”
The Well provides services, programs and meals for Well members with a small, hardworking staff. “The Well would not be what it is today without these people who run it,” said a volunteer. Indeed, along with Executive Director Alice Zaccarello, Program Coordinator Ericka Ruiz and Assistant Program Coordinator Gemma Cardenas make quite the dream team when it comes to loving the members of The Well.
Ericka joined The Well staff in September 2016 after a friend posted a job opening on Facebook. She was hired immediately and was eager to try something new. “I wasn’t looking specifically for a nonprofit or somewhere to serve those who struggle with mental illness, but I’m so glad I ended up here,” Ericka said. “I started leading devotionals and greeting at the door, but now I do all the cooking, overseeing the programs and administrative work. There was so much to do, so we hired Gemma, and she’s been a lifesaver.”
In fall 2017, Gemma’s psychology degree at the University of North Texas at Dallas required an internship for her last semester. After meeting Alice at an internship fair, she knew where she wanted to be. “The Well was the only organization that caught my attention because they were the only ones who seemed to be practically helping people.” Gemma’s four-month internship concluded with her graduation in December. “In March, I came back to visit and catch up with all the friends I had made here, and Ericka told me they were hiring. I immediately applied and was able to start right away.”
With the hard work of these dedicated women, The Well Community has continued to stay true to its mission: be a safe haven for those who struggle with mental illness and address the practical needs of its members. Ericka and Gemma help provide an emotionally safe and stable place for members where they feel the care of others.
“I love getting to cook for them. There’s something about preparing food with my hands and serving it, knowing I labored for them. It’s my favorite part of the day,” Ericka shares.
Gemma shares the best part of her job is her conversations with members. “As soon as we open, I get to say good morning to them and that’s where I hear about their lives. They fill me in on what they’ve been doing and what help they need. They’re easy to talk to; all I have to do is listen.” Gemma also leads the daily devotionals before lunch is served. “Devotional time is when they get comfortable and open up. It’s part of the ministry too—being heard and getting to talk about some of the hardships they’ve kept in for years, sometimes decades.”
Ericka added, “I get to hear all of this from the kitchen, so I’m listening and ready to offer encouragement along with Gemma.”
However, with the highs, there are always lows. “The most challenging part of the job is knowing we can’t help everybody with everything, whether that’s listening to them, or helping them find places to stay, or providing clothes to wear, or even assisting [them in] getting a government ID that has their name on it. You meet these people and grow to love them, but you always know in the back of your mind there’s a limit to what you can do,” Ericka said. Indeed, the needs of Well members often do seem insurmountable, and for the issues that can be addressed, funding limitations constrict the scope of services.
Bringing her psychology studies to bear, Gemma added that there is also a limit to human capacity. “When you’re listening to them share things from their past that are unimaginable, you have to tell yourself to hold it together. It’s hard not to show your emotions. It’s a lot of holding back tears.”
The Well Community isn’t a place for serving only; it’s a place that changes the way you see life. “I’m more appreciative of what I have because I have worked here. It has humbled me because you see what you have compared to what you could lack.” Ericka shared that she has a different perspective now. “I used to be homeless. I would take my daughters and we would go ask for food and go get clothes from shelters. Working here has made me more thankful and reminded me of how far I’ve come.”
For Gemma, it was a matter of career choice and what field of psychology she wanted to go into. “Originally I walked into The Well wanting to be a licensed professional counselor (LPC). But now I want to be a social worker. It’s more hands-on. I think now that I’ve met people I could help and have been able to help, The Well Community has made me want to continue to do something like this, something that really matters.”
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