In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke with mental health professional and Avodah Service Corps alumna Camellia Heart about her experiences in the field.
Camellia Heart had just finished college at University of Georgia and was looking for her next move before graduate school. Combing through job and gap year opportunities online, she spotted Avodah on her school’s career center website.
“Avodah was first on the list – it was alphabetical,” she quipped. The combination of the chance to do hands on social work and live in Jewish community drew her to the program.
She applied and secured a spot in the program, relocating from Georgia to Washington, D.C. for her placement at N Street Village, where she worked in a day center for unhoused women. N Street Village was an extremely valuable and foundational experience for the role she hopes to take in her community in the future, and how she hopes to re-shape social work. The experience was challenging, but it taught her that she wanted to pursue a career working with people.
“I learned I wanted to go into social work, because I love working with people and interacting with them on a day-to-day basis. I also recognized that there’s a huge gap in the social services we have in our country, and I wanted to help close that gap… I wanted to focus on mental health because it sits at the intersection of so many different things, such as homelessness and substance use disorders.”
In addition to her love for working with people, her Jewish values also played a role in her chosen career, particularly the pillar of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world — and her career is very much oriented to the way she wishes to live out that principle.
“My job, my life, my Judaism – they’re all tied together. This is the debt that I owe for being on this Earth. I have a responsibility to help bridge the gap for others who didn’t have the privileges I do… Judaism also helps me relate to my clients. I have a strong relationship with God and I can understand my clients who confide in a higher power.”
Camellia now spends three days a week doing intake for new clients and the other two days counseling long-term clients as they work to maintain sobriety at a clinic in Philadelphia. On intake days, she typically hears from 10 or so new referrals and is responsible for determining whether the individuals are a good fit for the program. For her therapy work, she enjoys hearing the stories of her 23 different clients.
“I love my job. I like knowing that I get to interact with a lot of different people and make an impact on them. I like knowing every day I have the opportunity to work with them at the most motivated point in their life, when they’re ready to make a change. I love knowing they’re one step closer to avoiding the atrocities of long-term drug use.”
Her work has taught her powerful lessons about human resilience. Through the difficult and the triumphant moments, Camellia reminds herself that her clients are battling an addiction they have no control over, and that every day they don’t use should be viewed as a success.
“I believe, and this is controversial to some, that no matter the actions that have led to where a person is today, everyone still deserves a home and safety. That is not a question for me. I hear my clients say, ‘I used to steal so I don’t deserve this’ – that’s not true.”
When asked how individuals can support community members struggling with substance use disorder, Camellia stressed the importance of carrying naloxone, a prescription medicine used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose emergency. Most local departments of public health offer training for carrying and using naloxone. “You should get some to carry around with you to help someone, who might be very close to death. Getting trained is a super easy and tangible way to understand the effects of opioids and how you can help.”
The strongest and most tangible lesson she learned from Avodah is about how and why to set boundaries. “Avodah was the first time in my life where I was told it was okay to set boundaries around my time and my health and how to effectively communicate these boundaries.”