Housing Assistance Corporation Blog

Rick Presbrey's Editorial: To Be Useful

Posted by Chris Kazarian on Mon, Dec 08, 2014 @ 12:31 PM

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I am sure all of us have different thought processes. Just the nature of being an introvert or extrovert alone would make each of us think very differently. Confidence is another trait. Of my four kids, one was born with great confidence or so it seems. Confidence sometimes allows you to try new things with less fear of failure. Each of us is different. Some have a powerful drive to achieve. One of my kids has that drive. Some of who we are may relate to our relationship with our mother or father.

My father never thought of me as having accomplished much. But then I never tried hard to please him. I don’t think he ever understood my passion for helping people. Thirty-five years ago I took him to see some houses families had built with their own hands, with HAC supervision, in Marstons Mills. Rather than being impressed with the feat, he pointed out things about the houses he didn’t like. The moment has stayed with me, in part, because I was surprised he didn’t understand that he needed to praise my accomplishment and needed to realize that helping unskilled people learn to build their own homes can make a dramatic improvement in their lives.

As I have aged, my increasing self-awareness and self-understanding have helped me discover things about myself. One of those things, and this is the point of this editorial, is that I don’t believe in punishment, or at least the level of punishment prevalent in our society. I have wanted punishment for people who have wronged me, but I believe that such retribution would serve no useful purpose.

Teaching self-discipline and imposing punishment are not the same thing.

As I look back on our lives, raising my now 20-year-old son, I can’t remember ever punishing him. I do vaguely remember some moments in “time-out,” but I don’t think I ever yelled at him or took something - a privilege or a possession - away from him.

He is home from college for a week now and what a pleasure it is to be with him. 

Discipline Through Positive Reinforcement

I believe that encouraging positive activities is the best way to “discipline” a child. Developing healthy ideas and activities through positive reinforcement is a great teaching tool to help kids develop self-management skills.

At HAC, I manage the staff, myself and to some extent, my boss. I am by far the hardest one to manage. I am hard on myself, sometimes to no avail. In managing staff, it is not about the mistakes they might make, it is about the successes they have and the good work they do. Our staff, who I consider my friends, are very motivated and skilled. I am grateful for them. I hope they feel the same way about me.

Several years ago I visited South Africa with my wife who had work there. We visited a memorial for Amy Biehl who had been murdered in the early ‘90’s by four black youths protesting white rule. Amy was a Rhodes Scholar who attended Stanford University and had gone to South Africa to work on developing voter registration for the first election where all races were allowed to vote. Amy’s parents, with donations and government help, set up a foundation in her honor to continue Amy’s work.

After four years in prison two of the murderers applied for pardons. Amy’s parents testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asking for mercy and the two were released. The two were then hired by the Foundation where they were working as recently as 2008, according to my research.

Testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on July 8, 1997, Amy’s father read a passage from a book by biologist and humanist Lewis Thomas that Amy had herself used in her high school valedictorian speech:

“The drive to be useful is encoded in our genes. But when we gather in very large numbers, as in the modern nation-state, we seem capable of levels of folly and self-destruction to be found nowhere else in all of nature.”

If the drive to be useful is what motivates us all, then it is up to us to create a path for that drive to flourish. I hope we do that at HAC and for our children and the families we serve.

Tags: HAC, housing assistance corporation, Rick Presbrey