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Chad Lassiter is a graduate from the School of Social Policy and Practice and director of the Red Cross House Center for Disaster Recovery, which serves as an alternative to the shelter system. 

Credit: Carter Coudriet

The Red Cross House Center for Disaster Recovery, directed by 2001 alumnus Chad Lassiter from the School of Social Policy & Practice, is a transitional housing facility and service center for survivors of disaster. The goal of the Red Cross House is simple — to move clients from disaster to recovery. It hosts 26 private family rooms and can accommodate 120 individuals at a time, including people with disabilities.

According to Lassiter, the Red Cross House ultimately strives to serve humanity. “We see the human spirit as being something that is our opportunity when they’re faced with adversity,” Lassiter said.

The Red Cross House serves as an alternative to the shelter system, which lacks the resources to offer similar opportunities for recovery and often forces families to live apart. During their stay, clients work closely with caseworkers and participate in a wide range of supportive programs. In executing a Family Recovery Plan, caseworkers help to ensure that families support themselves and maintain as normal a routine as possible. Clients may receive housing assistance from various public and private agencies.

“I think Penn students need to be aware that the Red Cross does more than just give blood,” Lassier explained. “When you look at the Medical school, the Nursing school and the work that Ira Harkavy is doing with the Netter Center, [Penn] does a lot in the community of West Philadelphia.”

Antonio Garcia, an assistant professor at SP2 , explained the extreme visibility of the disparity between the University community and the West Philadelphia community.

“Unfortunately, our research has shown that communities of color are more likely than Caucasian communities to lack benefits, insurance and other resources,” Garcia said. “You walk down campus and everything looks fine in terms of neighborhood conditions and the social environment, but you turn the corner into West Philadelphia and it’s striking, the difference.”

Garcia explained that a common perpetrator of such disparities are social conditions that are “beyond the control of the individual person such as lack of resources, access to services and insurance.”

Roberta Rehner Iversen, a professor at SP2 , believes that there has been a long-standing involvement from nearby campuses in West Philadelphia.

“Through the Netter Center, there are lots of service-learning projects that are very much engaged. In the last 20 years or so, the University has really reached out to doing work through partnerships with the Medical, Nursing and Dental schools.”

Iversen explained that Drexel University is more involved in the technical aspect of providing assistance, while Penn has been involved in financial and consulting aspects. “We have provided social workers from to nearby elementary schools.”

Although there is obvious social and socioeconomic disparity between the University and the community, Lassiter believes that students should take on the challenge of integrating themselves into the Philadelphia community with a teachable mentality.

“I think we also have to just be mindful that we are guests in West Philadelphia,” Lassiter explained. “But I have seen the University over the past 10 years bridge the gap between community and university and look at working in the collaborative with so many initiatives that really aid the community. Community teaches us and we teach the community as well.”

Lassiter has taken many of the core principles from his experiences at SP2 and embodied them in his work with the Red Cross.

“I took away the whole premise of the School of Social Policy & Practice, which was deeply rooted in looking for social justice, equality and equity on every side of the color line, on every side of the gender line,” Lassiter said.

“The school gave me the theoretical framework for how I engage with clients and families, learning certain ecosystems and being so deeply rooted in theory and research,” Lassiter explained. “It has really opened up a lot of doors and pathways for me to help those who have been oppressed and marginalized.”

Indeed, Lassiter stressed that it is difficult to focus entirely on theory when engaging in fieldwork. The translation from theory to reality is a process that he describes as “the moment, the now and the mean time.”

“A lot of the things that were in the book goes out the door and you sometimes have to rely on instinct,” Lassiter said. Drawing upon his experience providing trauma counseling in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Lassiter explained that “there was no time for theorizing and so what I found myself doing was just rolling up my sleeves and really just doing the real work of helping real people.”

Lassiter believes that volunteers are the core force that drives the mission of the Red Cross. “I think it’s really key to let our Penn students know that there’s a place like the Red Cross that’s here in the same community as the University. There are a wealth of volunteer opportunities.”

“We’ve had Penn students come in and help us paint some of our suites. We have young people from the University of Pennsylvania Red Cross clubs who come here on Saturdays — they help our residents with constructing a resume, job interview skills, tips like that, and in the spring they are planning to embark upon building a zen garden out near our playground area which is going to provide a sense of comfort, relaxation and meditation, because sometimes when you’ve been displaced because of a catastrophic event, you need to get your mind off things.”

The most effective social workers are “those that are able to stay in the moment, those who don’t lose themselves, those who know that there is something that’s driving them.”

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