Monday, January 10, 2011

Hermano Pedro Day program uses Netflix films to educate and entertain

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It is Iona Sebastian’s job to provide help to homeless men and women in the community.  It’s her job to welcome them to the Hermano Pedro Multicultural Day program five days a week for breakfast and lunch, then point them to where they can take advantage of free—and immaculately clean—laundry and shower facilities.

Yet back in 2008 as a newly minted Catholic Charities Program Manager, Iona decided that her program needed the extra oomph to get even more clients inside and learning.  Top-notch case management services, peer focus groups and free meals were great—but not quite enough.

“We had to create a program that would appeal to everyone and would get them to come to the center, stay and learn something in the process,” Iona said.  Technology, she decided, would serve as the perfect tool.  So with a 27-inch analog television and a much-loved but sturdy DVD player, Iona started renting movies and getting clients to interact with staff and one another.

Yet the selection was limited, and repetitive movies became boring for clients.  That’s when Iona decided to get creative with the few resources available to her, and she signed up for a three-at-a-time DVD rental account with Netflix.

“We turn this free time into something productive and educational—and now they get a big say in what they watch and learn,” Iona said.  She encourages residents to give her feedback on the selections to ensure that they stay entertained and happy.  Yet it’s also a small but important way the program’s clients can have a chance to use their voice and exercise their independence.

While Iona likes to receive input on what she shows, she also chooses movies with recognizable themes such as overcoming substance abuse and addiction, family issues, homelessness, racism and HIV/AIDS.  Plus, access to Netflix’s 100,000-title library makes it easy for her to find Spanish-language films for the Center’s substantial Hispanic base.

These films may show it tough, but the outcomes are always positive, said Sean Thomas, a three-year client-turned-volunteer at Hermano Pedro. “The movies have the power to show clients what they can achieve if they work hard.”  

In fact, many of the trials film characters face mirror the hardships clients experience on a day-to-day basis.  Equipped with three dedicated case managers and a host of volunteers, the Center aims to address each client’s individual need, getting them clean or pointing them to supplementary services, showing that they’re supported and eventually making sure they can lead independent, productive lives.  And often, seeing their own lives reflected back to them on film galvanizes clients to seek help, work harder to kick an addiction or deal with family issues that have kept them from keeping a stable home.

Sean is particularly active in choosing movies for the group to watch and tries to focus on themes that the clients will find both interesting and informative.  “Secrets of the Mind,” an educational documentary he recently picked out, deals with a host of mental illnesses and peculiarities that some of the clients experience, but work to overcome with the guidance of the Catholic Charities social workers and program managers who make up the Hermano Pedro family.

“This is just a small way I can help out,” said Sean, who credits the all-around support of the program with his decision to take up culinary classes at DC Central Kitchen next month.  “Where else can you get breakfast, lunch, free laundry, showers and movies on top of everything else?”  Now, Sean tries to give back as much as he can by volunteering at the Center, chatting with clients and helping them learn about life and overcoming what sometimes seem like insurmountable odds—through messages delivered by way of Netflix films.

Now, Iona just needs to figure out how to make Netflix streaming work, and she just might be able to if she could get her hands on a digital Roku player and a new television set.  With an expanded, instantly accessible library, just imagine how many more clients she could reach.

But for now, Iona makes do with the resources Hermano has to offers its clients.  And it just goes to show that a little innovation goes a long way.

Learn more about the Hermano Pedro Multicultural Day Center and how you can donate or volunteer here.