NOAH_Life_Skills_Photo.jpgNOAH’s Deborah McDonnell (left) with shelter director Greg Bar. McDonell led an 11-week class that gave NOAH guests the tools and confidence to be successful after leaving shelter. 

This year, Deborah McDonnell will graduate from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire with a master’s degree in social work.

When she does, she will have practical experience that shows work in this field can provide tangible benefits to those most in need thanks to her time at the NOAH Shelter. McDonnell has been at the shelter since last July when she was hired as direct care staff.

She has combined her work at the shelter with her academic studies to provide Cape Cod’s homeless men and women with real-life skills that can help them once they move out of NOAH and into permanent housing. Last fall, McDonnell designed an 11-week course titled “It Gets Better” as part of a capstone project aimed at providing shelter guests with useful tools they can draw on when they achieve self-sufficiency. It’s a course she plans on bringing back to the shelter, in some form, in the future.

“I wanted to reintroduce guests to what their goals and dreams are and reconnect them with aspects of their community,” she said in December when she was handing out certificates of completion to 26 men and women who had taken part in the course. “It’s really shoring up their skills and giving them special strategies to work with anger management, conflict resolution and accumulating stress in their bodies.”

Reawakening NOAH Guests

To that end, she led participants in a variety of activities – meditation, physical exercises that included ping pong, charades and writing poetry – that tapped into parts of their mind and body that may have gone stagnant as they coped with homelessness.

Shelter director Greg Bar said the classes seemed to reawaken many shelter guests who became actively engaged in McDonnell’s lessons. “What I hope is that they realize life can get better,” Bar said. “And that it gave them some practical tools to move forward in life. Some people who started the group in October are gone, are housed and employed which is pretty cool.”

McDonnell hoped that NOAH guests would draw upon their experiences in the class to help them during life’s tougher moments so “that they keep reaching with the best they have to achieve all they want to achieve.”

Lou, a 62-year-old at NOAH, said McDonnell’s sessions were useful in helping him to better control his emotions. While his goal “is getting out of here, that’s step number one,” he said that NOAH has helped keep him both sober and safe, especially during the colder, winter months.

Both he and Doug, another guest at the shelter, admitted being homeless has been difficult. “The loss of self,” is the worst part, said Doug, who arrived at NOAH in November.

His message to those who may have negative attitudes towards the homeless spoke to the underlying concept behind McDonnell’s class: “I’d tell them to open their hearts to the possibility of helping somebody who is homeless,” Doug said.