Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Climbing together Executive director, a cancer survivor, wants to remind everyone about mammograms

Clients at ACCESS know what it's like to have mountains in front of them. Those that seem too high to climb and too wide to get around.

Fortunately, they have in Lynn Budnick someone who knows firsthand about formidable mountains.

Budnick — executive director of ACCESS, Akron's emergency homeless shelter for women and their children — is climbing the rough side of her own mountain right now. Breast cancer.

Even so, her face bears no strain of her struggle. And she hasn't allowed it to define her or to stop her from moving forward.

In turn, she expects no less of the women at ACCESS who have their own mountains: bad decisions in romance or finance, generational poverty, job loss or sobriety issues.

Budnick, who's been ACCESS' leader for three years, spoke candidly last week about those journeys, hers and her clients'.

Diagnosed in early May, it was the 55-year-old Budnick's second go-round with breast cancer. The first was nearly 14 years ago.

''I finished everything on New Year's Eve,'' Budnick said of the hallelujah moment when her treatment was complete.

Because there was lymph node involvement, she elected to have a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Through it all she missed very little work. The silver lining was that staff members saw how she scaled her own mountain. Bald head and all.

''I didn't cover anything up. I made a point of not wearing a wig,'' the soft-spoken-but-take-no-prisoners Budnick said. ''My hope was to shock people into getting mammograms.''

Likewise, she hopes the ACCESS programs shock clients into changing course and carving out different road maps for their future and their children's.

Speaking of road maps, Lynn Budnick's journey to her position at the 25-year-old ACCESS was unpredictable.

''It was weird,'' she said. ''I was in arts management at the Cleveland Orchestra for 20 years, the last three years as general manager at Blossom Music Center.''

Budnick was finally ready to retire — or so she thought — when she learned of a ''need'' at ACCESS. It was in development, doing fundraising. Blessed with the ability to write grants, she felt hard-pressed to say no.

ACCESS is 55- to 60-percent supported by the government. ''Because of those regulations we count everything,'' she said. ''We count ourselves very lucky,'' she added, referring to donations the facility has received from foundations and individuals.

Understandably with the hit the economy is taking, the donations aren't as plentiful.

During her stint as development director Budnick did some of everything, including negotiating with contractors for snowplowing. It was a great fit, she said.

A new challenge

However, as ''ACCESS got more and more under my skin'' Budnick felt pulled in another direction.

''I had absolutely no background in social services,'' she acknowledged. Still she yielded unflinchingly to the belief that sometimes God places you where you need to be.

So, when the position of executive director became open, it seemed to be calling her name.

''This was the culmination of my life!'' Budnick said in hindsight.

''I've been a lot of places. But coming here means I make a difference in people's lives,'' she continued, describing the addictive nature of the job.

''Here we give people the tools to change their lives.''

For the most part that's accomplished inside a short window. Clients are generally residents of the emergency shelter for 30 days.

''I love what I do and my young staff,'' she said. ''They actually come to work here with a twinkle in their eyes, eager to help people. . . .

''We're in the business of giving hugs!''

Now that's not to say they don't run a tight ship at ACCESS.

''All have to do chores. . . . We have strict curfews here,'' Budnick said. ''Children have to go to school [their home school]. And young children must be in bed by 8:30 p.m. Mothers have to be in by 10 p.m. [11 p.m in the summer].

The women at ACCESS are given the first 24 to 48 hours to decompress, Budnick said.

Then it's down to business of making that real change.

''The woman's first appointment is with a case manager,'' Budnick said, adding that physicals are mandatory for all adults and children.

''The woman is given five objectives to work on and a timeline to complete them.''

Most of the ACCESS clients fall into two categories: those who are chronically homeless, or the generational poor. The latter accounts for 75 percent of those served.

ACCESS' shelter is public, so any victims of domestic violence are housed at the Battered Women's Shelter, which has secret locations.

In 2009, ACCESS served 720 clients; 358 were children, 156 under the age of 6 and five newborns.

The average age of ACCESS' clients is 45. For singles it's 49, and for mothers it's 25. The average stay is 22 days. Mothers tend to stay longer.

Clients are screened for mental illnesses; drug and alcohol use are not tolerated.

Getting what's needed

To successfully climb their mountains, the women are given the tools to learn new habits, Budnick said.

Of course, the most difficult hurdles are housing and finding a job.

''The largest, growing homeless statistic are single women with multiple children,'' Budnick said. ''The new poor are husbands and wives who have lost jobs. . . . ''

So, the population at ACCESS is ever growing.

''We turn away about 1,000 requests every month,'' Budnick said.

While some of the teaching that goes on at ACCESS is direct, some is indirect. ''We try to educate clients [about some issues]
without them knowing it,'' Budnick said. ''We put on programs like 'How not to marry a jerk!' 'What not to wear to a job interview!' ''

At ACCESS, the whole family is treated. ''We stay as involved as we can with the children,'' Budnick said. ''We get counseling for the kids. . . . We recognize that it's terribly traumatic for them to be here.''

To make the landing as soft as possible for them, ACCESS has a play room for the younger children, and a teen room equipped with computers, a karaoke machine and musical instruments. Also on the menu are teen gab sessions where participants can talk about issues they can't bring to Mom: sex, drugs, etc.

Children, who often arrive with nothing or very little, are provided three outfits and school uniforms and tutoring, if needed, through Project RISE.

''Also, we're always watching the developmental skills of the [nursery-school-aged] children because the homeless tend to be two years behind,'' Budnick said.

Even with her cancer battle and those of other loved ones, Lynn Budnick — married with two stepsons — looks at her glass as half full rather than half empty.

''I have health insurance. ACCESS clients don't have that luxury,'' Budnick bristled.

Another mountain!

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