Compassion in Action: Dalai Lama Honors SAMHSA Grantee
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Ed Blackburn, Executive Director of Central City Concern, in Portland, Oregon, was recently honored by the Dalai Lama in the Unsung Heroes of Compassion ceremony held in San Francisco in April 2009. Central City Concern is a SAMHSA grantee that provides pathways to self-sufficiency through active intervention in poverty and homelessness. Ed discusses the challenges and rewards of his eighteen years of service at Central City Concern with the HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans.
What would you say if you had a chance to speak with the Dalai Lama?
Ed Blackburn, Executive Director of Central City Concern, in Portland, Oregon, was recently honored by the Dalai Lama in the Unsung Heroes of Compassion ceremony held in San Francisco in April 2009. Central City Concern is a SAMHSA Services in Supportive Housing grantee. The agency promotes pathways to self-sufficiency through active intervention in poverty and homelessness.
This event was the third since 2001 and was organized by Wisdom In Action, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of compassion in action. Ed was one of 49 individuals honored for service to the disenfranchised of the world and for his work to improve the community through personal efforts.
Ed reports that meeting the other honorees and the Dalai Lama himself was a humbling experience. “We talked to each other about what we would say if we had a chance to speak with the Dalai Lama. I just wanted to make eye contact with him. He’s heard everything. I was the third person up there, and when I got up there, the Dalai Lama clasped my hands. It was a surprise. He made eye contact and it lasted a few moments. I said thank you. I still reflect on the eye contact. There was so much youthfulness in his eyes, and deepness; he is an amazing person. It’s kind of a meditation. His look made me see things differently. It will have more of a lasting effect on me than any words.”
Ed began his work at Central City Concern eighteen years ago as the Director of the Hooper Detoxification Center. He is quick to recognize the value of his co-workers.
“My greatest teachers are the people I work with at Central City Concern. The nurses and line staff show endless compassion. They bring such compassion and skill to the job and that’s across the board with our services. I always have something to learn from the people who are so dedicated to their jobs,” says Ed.
One of the things that Ed emphasizes is the development of positive peer relationships. He comments that there is always a lesson when he sees people reaching backwards to pull someone off the streets. “When I went to the Hooper Detoxification Center, I thought I had compassion, but I realized that I had no idea,” says Ed.
Ed believes in the practice of compassion and the importance of tending to relationships, but notes that it is not always easy. “I am not the most compassionate person all the time. I am as hard to deal with as anybody. When I am doing things right and I am able to help others that are doing the everyday line work, that sense of compassion goes back and forth between me, the staff and our clients,” says Ed.
“Compassion is not just a one-way application. It builds an environment and work that is always imperfect and always rising and falling and changing, but it causes our whole organization to have a strong sense of mission,” says Ed, adding that Central City Concern is always trying to improve the way they do things.
Ed has a background in the study of world religions and says that knowledge of the diversity of faiths has given him an understanding that helps him to connect to the suffering of the people he works with.
“If your programmatic approaches don’t understand the context of suffering, it becomes too much to bear. It is so true for so many of our clients. This understanding opens a door to a mission oriented organization. We hire a lot of people who are formerly homeless and emphasize the strength of the mission. A lot of our staff talk about providing opportunities for transformation,” says Ed.
It was one such moment of transformation that led Ed to realize that the work of helping others is his life’s work. In 1992 a man named David was being treated at the Hooper Detoxification Center for heroin addiction. He had lost both of his legs and was being treated for hypothermia. A moment of grace compelled Ed to get down on his knees and speak to David.
“I whispered in his ear that if he didn’t get sober and into safe housing he would be dead within a month, says Ed. He looked into the man’s eyes and told him that God loved him.
Following this intervention and substantial efforts by staff, three weeks later, David was in recovery.
Today Ed makes prayer and meditation a part of his daily life as a way to seek clarity for solving complex problems. “I can’t say I am disciplined, but it helps me put difficulties that happen in a context, and helps me to get clarity about how to approach things,” says Ed.
While he offers that we cannot always be calm in crisis, he believes that we can try to have clarity. “It’s about setting aside ego and figuring out how to approach people who have a problem, or to help others. It is not about having revelations, but about how to solve problems in a successful, creative way,” says Ed.
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