Colleen Hammon speaks about Mental Health at the Soup Kitchen
Colleen with a guest at the soup kitchen

Colleen Hammon volunteers at Emmaus Soup Kitchen twice a week in the dining room, where she often uses her experience with social work to engage in meaningful conversations with guests. She was interviewed by Emmaus staff member, Breanna Mekuly.

How did you become involved in volunteering at Emmaus?
Colleen: For quite a few years, I’ve helped with the annual Clothing Drive at Emmaus – donating items, then helping to sort and all. Only since I retired, I’ve been volunteering at the soup kitchen two days a week. As an administrator and director of organizations for the past 15 years, volunteering at Emmaus has been different – it offers me an opportunity to serve in a hands-on way.

Breanna: What do you enjoy about volunteering at Emmaus?
Colleen: I appreciate the “Loving Kindness Culture” that is at Emmaus. I think when you walk in the door of Emmuas – whether you’re there as a volunteer, guest, cook, or whomever – there is a sense of loving kindness. Here, it’s a physical presence in the atmosphere. And it’s welcoming for me as a volunteer; if it weren’t, I’d be spending my time somewhere else.

What do you do during your time at Emmaus?
Colleen: I have a dual role at Emmaus. I work “on the floor,” cleaning tables, interacting with guests, and taking out the trash. My other role is to be a “Resource Consultant.” Because I worked all these years in social services, I’m aware of what resources there are in Erie, where they are, and how to help the guests at Emmaus find them. In the old days, you could call around to a few agencies and figure it out – but it doesn’t really work like that anymore. So my goal is that I can offer assistance and navigation to anyone in need.

Breanna: Other than hunger, what is one common need you’ve witnessed in our guests at the soup kitchen?
Colleen: Mental illnesses are very common among those who come to the soup kitchen.

Breanna: You worked in Mental Health services for a while, correct?
Colleen: Yes, as a Director of Mental Health Services. There, I discovered an awareness of needs in the Erie county, where people could find help, and what gaps exist in providing adequate service.

Breanna: What have you experienced to be the most common forms of mental illnesses found in Erie?
Colleen: Well, that’s difficult to answer. Most people seem to struggle with anxiety disorders and depression. Common anxiety disorders would be something like school phobias or social anxiety. But what many people struggle to understand is that mental health diagnoses are snapshots in time.

Breanna: What do you mean by that?
Colleen: Like physical illnesses, mental illnesses can be fluid over time. The most important thing is not the labeling of an illness but that people are able to seek and find support during their time of need. Likewise, it is extremely important for us all to be more aware of trauma. Many guests at Emmaus experience trauma. And trauma affects people in ways that we never knew before – it actually changes one’s brain.

Breanna: What are common causes of trauma that you’ve seen people suffering with?
Colleen: It seems that many people experience trauma after a critical event, like being a victim of or witnessing domestic violence, experiencing a car accident, being bullied, or something along those lines.

Breanna: Why do you think people aren’t able to find or receive adequate care for their mental illnesses? In other words, why do we see a large number of people with untreated mental illnesses at the soup kitchen?
Colleen: First, we can’t be sure that these mental illnesses are untreated. We still have a lot of people with mental illness who are being treated but are still really struggling. Recovery is a process – it’s moving toward well-being. It’s moving toward managing your illness as you move toward your fullest self. In a person’s journey moving toward recovery, they need to be in a space and time where they are comfortable moving forward. That’s why acceptance and support is helpful.

But also, society has also stigmatized mental illness. People try to hide mental illness because they are ashamed. People act as if it’s a decision and not a disorder.

Finally, it’s important to state that mental health services are voluntary, unless one is an imminent risk to oneself or others. This means a person in need has to be in a space where they can make a decision, which is also difficult when one is suffering.

Likewise, treatment can be intrusive to daily life. Some of the medications have challenging side effects. They might not have the resources – especially things to support their movement towards recovery. These resources could be social supports (family that have taken an interest), financial resources (in Erie the social services are helpful but…) it’s hard to keep a job and keep going when you are working towards recovery.

Emmaus is a place where people can ask for help. We can’t provide them with that but we can help them find resources.

Breanna: How have you experienced symptoms of mental health arise in the soup kitchen?
Colleen: People with mental illnesses can react differently. For example, a man at the kitchen got really angry and started venting about something that happened. As he was venting, I realized that he had some sort of cognitive disability; so his way of processing is different than I would process. He couldn’t think it all through right away and instead would just go right to anger. So once I understood that, I could better understand where he was coming from; what his perspective was.

Breanna: What advice do you have for volunteers at Emmaus when we encounter a guest struggling like this?
Colleen: Always respond with respect and loving kindness. Remember, people don’t choose mental illness or to suffer with trauma. We shouldn’t say “they are crazy” or “they are nuts.” We have to be careful in what we say because some of these statements can be triggering.

Also, people choose help when they are ready and when they have support. People move toward recovery at their own pace. They will move quicker toward secured resources if they are feeling supported and accepted.

Emmaus needs to be a place of safety and trust. We have to make sure those reactive negative statements are not going to re-traumatize anyone.

Breanna: Lastly, if volunteers encounter someone who is struggling with an episode of some sort, what do you suggest they do?
Colleen: First, remember you’re not a professional; instead seek support from someone who has expertise and is trained in dealing with individuals who have suffered with trauma. In the meantime, remain calm. Be understanding.

Don’t start with “no” in a response. People don’t hear much more after the “no” in the sentence. Rather, one of the most important things we can say to people when they share their stories with us is “I’m so sorry.” Just a shared awareness that they have had difficult experiences and life has been hard.

Breanna: Thanks so much for sharing.
Colleen: Thanks for letting me volunteer at Emmaus!