Pittsburg: Retiring case worker a 'miracle worker' for clients

Pittsburg: Retiring case worker a 'miracle worker' for clients
By Rick Hurd

Coni Soares didn't need retirement gifts on her final day as a case worker at Lyle Morris Family Center in Antioch.

She already had plenty: Hundreds of photographs of people she had helped, all of them with unique stories of survival. Those were gift enough.

"They all become a part of you," Soares, 67, said of those depicted in photos that once lined her office walls. "They each get their own individual place in your heart. And that's a gift you can't pay for."

Soares must now find a new home for the precious photos. After 14 years, she worked her final day in February for Shelter, Inc., an independent nonprofit organization founded in 1986 to aid Contra Costa County's homeless.

Soares' job description was case worker. However, those whose lives she touched have a different term: Miracle worker.

"She's like a great coach," fellow case worker Robert Gorham said. "But in this game, she's saving lives."

Soares helped approximately 1,100 men, women and children transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency after coming to Shelter, Inc. in 2001. In addition to the photos, her office was crowded with thank-you notes, drawings and copies of graduation certificates from both children and adults.

"You know, a lot of people I ran across during my struggles, for them this was just a job and a paycheck," said Breanna Ford, 36, of Richmond, whose struggles led her to Soares in 2003. "But with Coni, it wasn't like that. She was able to come at me from her own experiences. She took time to hear me out. She was my personal cheerleader, and my advocate.

Soares became "another mother" for Ford. "She's got that place in my heart, and it won't ever go away."

Soares said her own heart was nourished by her upbringing. The youngest of nine children, she grew up in Pittsburg in a neighborhood she said was poor by economic standards but rich in everything else.

"My parents used to tell all of us, and it sounds old-fashioned, that it's better to give than to receive," she said. "They said it would be hard work, and you know what? It is hard work. But it makes all the difference.

"That's how I was raised. I was brought up with parents who were so, so giving. Not just to our whole family but the whole neighborhood. That taught me a lot."
Those lessons steadied her during a difficult time early in her adult life, when she found herself a single mom with three children. They came into play again in 1997 when Soares lost both her parents and her husband while trying to raise two grandchildren, and suddenly found herself struggling to pay the rent. She came to Shelter, Inc., for help and met Gorham, her case worker.

"I think I'm able to draw from my own experiences, and that becomes a bridge to others who are going through difficult experiences," she said. "Shelter, Inc. saved my life, and that's what I tell the people I work with. I'm very proud of my clients, because they've overcome real difficult barriers and life challenges. Sometimes, what you need to get through those things is a friend, somebody who will understand."

Gorham said Soares has the ability to relate to those who have walked through the doors at Shelter, Inc., and communicate without judgment.

"She was able to (build) that trust pretty much right away," said 47-year-old Lee Austria, of Martinez. Austria and his wife struggled with addiction but have found sobriety and stability for their two children after his problems landed him in and out of jail for 10 years.

"You have to understand that a lot of us, our parents don't teach us the lessons and the skills to learn how to be accountable. Some of us, our parents aren't there," Austria said. "With Coni, that's all she's about. Be accountable for your life, and she teaches people how to do that. She becomes just like your parent."

The help she offers should not be mistaken for coddling, either, Austria said. "I'd call her 'Barracuda,' " he said. "I'd come home with a paycheck, and she'd meet me in the parking lot. 'Let me see your paycheck, hand me your paycheck,' so I wouldn't do something ridiculous with it. I'd think she was coming out to say hello to me and give me a hug or something. But no, she'd be reinforcing what was smart and what was necessary. For somebody like myself, that's not something I ever was exposed to, and you get a good feeling knowing somebody cares about you that much to show you."

Soares' work isn't entirely finished. She will continue to volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul of Concord, an organization that helps Concord residents in extreme poverty. And she said she finds herself spending some of her free time trying to help out when needed by her old employers.

After all, she said, she wouldn't have had all of those pictures without them.

"I admire all the case managers and everybody involved here," she said. "They're all my family, and we're all in this together."

 

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