With open arms

At the Voluntary Action Center, Caira Bolen tries to give clients whatever they need — including hugs
Sunday, October 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:12 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Caira Bolen sees her job as a calling, not just a career. Her work at the Voluntary Action Center — helping people find what they need to get by — is simply an extension of the most important thing in her life.

“Pretty much all day, every day, is representing the relationship I have with the Lord,” Bolen says. “If I did not have that, I would not be able to look at people for who they are. Homeless, holes in their shirt, dirty … I know that’s not who they were created to be.”

Bolen’s title is information and referral specialist. Yet she says her job is to see her clients for their potential.

She meets with about 100 clients a week. Some need housing. Some need help paying for a prescription. Some just need bus tickets. Bolen looks beyond their short-term needs to help them succeed for the long term.

“You see generations of bad choices,” she says. “The majority of people who come really are in need — whether they realize it, they are.”

Bolen was born into a situation much like those she now helps people work through. The third child of seven, she grew up in inner-city Kansas City. Her single mother worked hard to keep the family on its feet, she says. Bolen, an MU graduate, was the first in her family to get a four-year degree.

“There is some relation when it comes to the position that our clients are in,” she says. “I can understand the frustration they feel when it comes to getting above water.”

Yet Bolen insists there was a bigger influence working in her life.

“It’s a blessing that I can even work in this position,” she says, then excitedly begins the story of how she came to MU.

“I applied at several universities, but coming out of high school, I wasn’t even sure if I would go to college,” she says. She got accepted at MU and received a letter about how much financial aid and scholarship money she would receive. Still, she wasn’t sure it was enough.

Bolen says she was thinking about what to do when she got a call on a Thursday from her recruiter at MU. There was an opening in the Summer Transition Program, which would allow her to take classes over the summer and get a five-year scholarship if she did well. But she had to decide by the next day.

“I called her back; I was here on Sunday,” says Bolen, her smile widening. “I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know the name of the program. All I knew is that it was an opportunity for higher education.”

Now, Bolen says, when clients sit on the other side of her desk and spill out their problems, she remembers that she used to be where they are. One woman said she thought Bolen couldn’t understand what she was struggling with.

“I’m a day away from being where you are,” Bolen told her.

Before she worked at the Voluntary Action Center, Bolen had a job at Consumer Credit Counseling Services. Her boss there, Joyce Davis, says she saw something unique in Bolen.

“Caira is a person with a huge heart and loves to share,” Davis says. “She accepts everyone with open arms and a caring heart.”

When Bolen came to the center, she knew she’d be in a similar position of working one-on-one with people on everyday crises. The center also appealed to her because of its special programs, such as the Christmas sponsorship in which Columbia residents “adopt” families in need.

“We’re the agency of first resort and the agency of last resort,” Bolen says. “They contact us to find out where to go to find the help they need, but if they don’t find it, they come back here.”

But sometimes, Bolen just listens.

“If you get a smile, a ‘How can I help you?’ — it makes a big difference. It’s important to keep that joy,” Bolen says.

Clients hug her all the time, she says. The first time it happened, she was surprised, she says, but now it’s commonplace.

While talking about her experiences, she sorts through a stack of thank-you notes. “Thank you so much for the help in getting glasses,” one states. “I can now read my bills, books and do crafts. Thank you so much for your kindness in my time of need.”

Although those notes encourage her, Bolen acknowledges the work gets hard sometimes. She says it’s normal in any community to have difficulty finding resources, but finding housing in Columbia is especially tough.

“It can get frustrating at times. You want to be able to help people. You want to be able to give them some type of leeway, some type of light,” she says.

But her optimism returns.

“I think it’s important to really pay more attention and do a self-evaluation of how they treat others from day-to-day, any given situation,” she says of people in general. Bolen says that no matter what position her clients are in that it’s important to treat people how you want to be treated.

“That is what is most helpful. That is what I think builds a community.”

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