Skip to main content

Dignity. What does it mean to treat others with dignity? To me, it’s about affirming someone’s self-worth and not treating them as “less than.” Treating others with dignity is especially important in the non-profit realm, where organizations are often working with people in disadvantaged situations. Dignity is going beyond the bare minimum of hand-outs, even if the hand-outs are extravagant. Working at Treehouse, I’ve seen an organization dedicated to giving youth in foster care the dignity they deserve.

I first started seriously contemplating the role of dignity in non-profit work when I volunteered at the Green Chair Project, the Raleigh-based non-profit my mom works for. Their mission is to provide furniture to people who recently secured housing after experiencing homelessness or a natural disaster. But it’s not just some big warehouse where people can walk in, dig through a scrap heap of basic furniture and leave, because that doesn’t inherently respect people’s dignity. Clients are given personalized tours throughout the store—yes, it’s designed to look like a high-end showroom—and get to pick out nice furniture, appliances, beds and other trappings that make housing actually feel like home. It also costs a small fee to receive furniture from Green Chair, which is designed to offer a sense of normalcy and value—to make the experience feel more like a transaction than a hand-out.

As my mom and I have discussed, getting out of homelessness requires more than housing. There has to be stuff in the home to properly live in it. But there also has to be a feeling of self-worth as well, and the dignity Green Chair shows its clients helps provide that extra boost needed to people experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet.

I thought about dignity again listening to our speaker, Aaron*, at our first reflection dinner. Aaron talked about losing his apartment due to new management, struggling with alcoholism and ending up homeless. After several months on the streets, he ended up at United Gospel Ministries, a place he gushed about. He said they showed a vested interest in seeing him recover and get back on his feet, which inspired him to become a group leader at the shelter. Aaron compared UGM to other ministries, where they basically just offer a bed and act like it is a military barracks—a difference in treating those in their care with dignity versus treating them like a problem that needs solving.

I’m grateful to be working at Treehouse because they believe youth in foster care deserve to be treated better than just cogs in the child welfare machine. Treehouse’s slogan is “Giving Foster Kids a Childhood and a Future,” implying their commitment to dignity. To give kids a proper “childhood,” the non-profit funds extracurricular activities and gives kids access to their store, where they can pick up stylish clothes, toys and books. That way, they don’t feel excluded from activities or fashions of their peers. And to provide foster youth a “future,” Treehouse offers education specialists around the state that work one-on-one with youth to help them set their own course to graduate high school. From what I’ve gathered, Treehouse doesn’t only want to make sure that youth are taken care of during their time in the foster care system, but that they are given a foundation to succeed after they leave the state’s supervision.

At the end of Aaron’s talk, he lamented that there couldn’t be more organizations like UGM. We all should. It’s easier to simply provide resources—some furniture here, a place to sleep there—than to go the extra mile to show dignity and respect to those you’re serving. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides is known for his eight levels of giving: the lowest level of giving is when it’s done unwillingly, and the highest level is giving in a way that empowers the beneficiary to not have to be dependent on others. I so much appreciate working for a place like Treehouse that’s dedicated to setting youth in foster care on a path to success, where they can thrive self-sufficiently.