Doing the Impossible

This is a story of how I changed the lives of 8 people for 10 days in a trifling way. But mostly, it’s about how I changed myself.

Many years ago I was a shy social worker at a small, non-profit agency helping runaway kids by giving them shelter, advocacy, and counseling.

We were housed in an old building undergoing renovation during the hottest July I can remember. Temperatures hit 100 F (37.8 C) every day. Because of the construction, the air-conditioning and ventilation system had been removed.

Doing the Impossible 1

For 2 days, 8 workers and I felt faint, nauseous, and head-achy. We sat with clients gasping in the heat, sweat dripping down our noses.

The boss said, “There’s nothing we can do.”

The heat wave was predicted for another week.

At that time, my financial situation was grim. I was going through a divorce. My house was in foreclosure because I didn’t make enough to pay my mortgage. I had nothing in the bank and was living from paycheck to paycheck until I could sell my house.

This was a new job so I had no vacation or sick time. If I didn’t show up, I might be fired.

But I felt so sick, I decided to take a risk that everyone told me was foolhardy.

Doing the Impossible 2

I typed a letter: “We employees can’t work under these conditions. We advocate for our clients, but what kind of role models are we if we can’t advocate for ourselves? When the temperature reaches 90 F (32.2 C) in the office, we are all going home.”

I knew the other workers would be too scared to sign this, except for one man. When he signed after my name, I engaged in a little subterfuge with everyone else.

I told Letitia, “John said he’ll sign this if you do.” She believed me. When John saw Letitia’s signature he signed.

I told each worker the same lie, starting with the bravest and making my way towards the biggest coward. “If we all sign, they can’t fire us.”

Everyone signed and I presented it to the boss demanding that he air-condition our offices.

He stared at me as if I were a mad woman. “That’s impossible! There is no air-conditioning system any more. What do you want me to do?”

By noon, the thermometer read 90 degrees. “Time to go home,” I told everyone.

“Are you sure?” they asked, afraid to move.

“Let’s go,” I said, gathering each worker and pulling everyone out together.

We filed past the shell-shocked boss.

I felt exuberant. I’d have a free summer vacation!

When we arrived at work the next morning, the boss announced, “I met with the board of directors and told them that Candy shut down our agency. They donated their own money and found a place that would rent us window air conditioners. Let’s go get them.”

We had air-conditioners for the 10 day heat wave that followed. And we got paid for that half day we’d taken off.

I felt like Norma Rae when she writes the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard, stands on her work table, and shows the sign around the factory room. One by one, everyone stops their mill machines and the entire room becomes silent. Victory!

Doing the impossible 3

I was still shy. I still avoided conflict when I could. But from then on, I knew that if I wanted something badly enough, I would ask for it. Even when it was impossible.

Have you ever done something that changed the way you behaved in the world?

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13 thoughts on “Doing the Impossible

        1. I became more assertive by trying small things, like asking for my money back when there was a no refund policy. I kept kindly repeating my request and got a refund. Try small stuff. (It works most of the time.)

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          1. Small steps is good. Although, depending on the situation, small things can seem like mountains. E.g. On a good day, asking for help in a shop is no problem. On a bad day and I don’t even walk in the shop.

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  1. Yes!!!! What a great story. I also had a similar experience when working in a sick, moldy building where children and staff were developing life-threatening conditions. Air filters were never replaced, carpeting was never cleaned, and paints and toxic chemicals were being used during the school day, which gave rise not just to asthma but even to seizures. Staff had complained but the principal didn’t want to make waves. I called the EPA for advice and they provided a free kit made specifically for schools. When the principal brought in district employees to tell us the chemicals were nontoxic and our claims of illness were just mass hysteria, I had already collected and researched the toxicity, and knew these chemicals could only be applied wearing haz-mat suits with open ventilation. My hands were shaking as I mumbled to people at my table and they insisted I stand up and refute the cover-up. So, I did….in shaky voice I provided details of the chemicals. The talking men fell silent and no one said a word. But then, one person clapped, followed by another and another. Then, a standing ovation. The men followed me to my classroom, said they’d wash the walls, remove the carpet and chalkboard. “No,” I said. “This is a schoolwide problem.” Following the advice of the EPA, we formed a committee and ultimately received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of repairs. The principal complained to me in his office about my behavior, but he no longer intimidated me.

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  2. Hi, I worked for non-profit as a clinical counsellor for 6 years. I was not as brave as you, but I did something that made people laugh (clients and counsellors alike).
    Every spring when the snow melted, we had huge floods and the roof was leaking. The rooms and carpet were soaked until we figured out where the drips were coming from. Each room with a drip received a large container (bucket) to catch the water as we were told as a non-profit they could not do more and we accepted….. in a similar way as most accepted the ultra cheap tissues that made clients sneeze (as a counsellor you need bulk of these). I bought my own…a better brand with some nice lotion in it, my clients loved my tissues.

    What I did…I bought all the counsellors a rubber duckie and placed it in the buckets….

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