Georgia Berkovich, Director of Public Affairs at The Midnight Mission of Los Angeles, has remade herself from the ground up. Once addicted to drugs and alcohol and nearly homeless herself, Berkovich has flourished by helping those still struggling to turn their own lives around. In her role, Berkovich is responsible for the Mission’s volunteer program, communications, community affairs and community events. In addition, she created and manages Art With A Mission, Music With A Mission and Laughter With A Mission, which are programs aimed at bringing hope to L.A.’s neediest, and speaks nationwide about her recovery and her work at The Midnight Mission. In a recent conversation with Aspire Editor Gayle Jo Carter, Berkovich, newly selected as the 2019 Pioneer Woman of the Year by the Council District 14 [of Los Angeles], shared her journey and the life lessons she learned along the way.
1. Accept help, you can’t do it alone:
I started drinking and partying as a young kid. My mom worked three jobs. I just ran wild. I’m an alcoholic, I learned, so my partying took on a life of its own. Many of my friends were just partying for fun or maybe it was just a phase for them. For me it became a lifestyle. From the beginning, I was getting in trouble. I was first arrested at age eleven and by the time I was in my early 20s – working for a nonprofit organization – I was fired, evicted from where I lived and had sold my car for crack cocaine. My once drinking and smoking pot every once in a while had turned into being a crack addict buying my crack at MacArthur Park. I could never have imagined that that would be my life.
Nobody ever dreams of being homeless. Nobody ever imagines that they are going to end up on the street. I had no place to go but I still had a friend. Her name was Diana. We’d been best friends since Kindergarten and her parents took me in. Had her parents not taken me in, I would have been homeless. I did have a mom and a grandma but they lived three hundred miles away in a tiny house, barely making ends meet themselves. Diana’s family took me in, but I continued to drink and do drugs.
What happened, I now realize, was that I hit a bottom deep enough for me to be willing to change everything. It wasn’t so much the outside – because I had hit an outside bottom several times throughout my drinking. It was an emotional bottom that allowed me to finally accept help. Diana had shared my struggles with a co-worker of hers, who called me one day and just said ‘I understand you have a problem with alcohol.’ And I was finally able to say: ‘I do.’ He offered me the number of a woman to call in a 12-Step program and because of that ‘emotional bottom,’ I was willing to do that.
I still get goosebumps about it: a stranger called me, gave me the number of another stranger, who took me to a room full of strangers and I’ve been sober ever since. I’m still not sure why I was lucky enough to come to a 12-Step program and be willing to make the changes and to do the work needed to stay sober. I see people every day here at The Midnight Mission who are more worthy than me, who aren’t able to make it and up end up dying on the streets. I feel blessed. There is a saying ‘You can’t deny someone their bottom because it may be their greatest gift.’
Today, I don’t want to waste any more moments or time, twenty-six years sober I am more likely to ask for help more quickly than ever. No matter how long I’m sober, I can never see my whole picture because I’m in it. If I’m waving my hand behind my right ear, I can’t see that hand. I never will be able to, no matter how spiritually evolved I become, no matter how I work my way up the ranks. I’m never going to see that hand. I’m always going to need someone on the outside who can see that for me. Today, I’m more surrendered to that help, to asking for help.
2. Rethink your goals.
I was always looking for my happiness in shiny objects and other people. Yet, the more I chased happiness, the more it eluded me. I had gotten everything I thought I would need to be happy and I found I wasn’t happy. I hit a really horrible depression at sixteen years sober. I decided I needed to do something different. I didn’t feel passionate about anything. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a grocery checker or brain surgeon. Nothing moved me. I started volunteering, on a more regular basis, at The Midnight Mission. As I became more useful, the byproduct was joy. So, I had to get to a point where I surrendered the idea of being for the idea of being useful.
"You can’t deny someone their bottom because it may be their greatest gift."
3. Say ‘Yes’ to the Universe.
I was married. I lived in beautiful home and I hit this horrible depression. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t worked in a little while because I had some health issues. I was trying to get back into the world. A friend of mine just suggested I just say yes to everything which I thought was just ridiculous. But I did.
The census was hiring people at that time and so I went to work for the census. I said ‘Yes.’ I had to learn how to use these little handheld computers and walk door to door and ask people basic questions about their lives. I just thought, ‘This is madness.’
Another friend of mine makes the product, the Instyler, which is a most fabulous hair product. It sold 3,500 units on eBay and she needed someone to go into each of the buyer accounts and say ‘Great transaction, thanks’ to the people who had bought the product because you get a better rating if you leave feedback. So she said, ‘I’ll pay you $20 an hour, if you’ll do this. So I said ‘Yes.’ All the while I was volunteering at The Midnight Mission, I was spending hours a day on eBay saying, ‘Great transaction, thanks.’
Then a friend of mine in my 12-Step group whose wife was dying of cancer had to keep working to keep their insurance. So, what he needed was somebody to put together a website to manage about 100 people’s schedule to look after his wife during the day, getting her to her doctor’s appointments, bringing dinner every night. He had all these people who are willing to help but he needed somebody coordinate it all. He asked if I could put together a website. I said ‘Yes,’ even though I’m the person that when the power goes out, my clocks all blink at noon, for months… I said ‘Yes.’ I taught myself how to put together a website online. I did that and helped manage her care until she died.
Another ‘Yes’ to the universe was when a former boss of mine from HBO had reached out to me on Facebook. He had a band and they were playing at The Roxy. He sent me an invite and I looked at my calendar and I just thought, ‘Gosh, I hope I have something on that night.’ Honestly, because I didn’t want to go because it was scary to do those things by myself. But I looked at my calendar and my calendar was open so I said ‘Yes.’
4. Just Show Up.
So I showed up. I had a wonderful time. 99% of almost everything is just showing up.
5. Show your skills.
While, I’m doing all these other things. I get asked to interview for a job at The Midnight Mission. So I sit down with the President and the head of HR and they started asking me questions. ‘How are you at learning new technology?’ I tell them ‘Actually, I just had to do that working for the census, I learned how to use these handheld computers.’ They said, ‘Fantastic.’ Then they tell me a lot of people donate goods to The Midnight Mission that we then sell on eBay. ‘Do you have any experience on eBay?’ And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’ And I explained my recent extensive work on eBay. The next thing they discuss is that the job would require managing the website. They ask, ‘Do you have any experience managing a website?’ And I said, ‘Well, I actually do. I managed this website for months, created it and managed it.’ And they’re like, ‘Fantastic.’ And one of things they want in an employee is working knowledge of the 12-Steps and it just happened to be my 17th 12-Steps sober anniversary. So I said, ‘I never said this in an interview but today is my 17th 12-Steps anniversary.’ They were like, ‘This is fantastic. We’ve been watching you. We thinking you’ll be a great fit for this job, but the referrals are co-workers or friends and we need to talk to someone you directly reported to.’ Since it had been a while since I’d been in the workforce, I wasn’t in touch with any of my former bosses, except, of course, for the one who I just showed up for at The Roxy to see his band play. I knew since he worked in film production, which means his work days are 12-16 hours every day, reaching him would have been very difficult had I just not showed up for him at this show that I didn’t want to go to but I went to because my calendar was open. So I reach out to him and say, ‘I know you’re in the middle of a show right now but if there’s any way you can make this call for me…’ He made it immediately and then I got this job.
I couldn’t have known that I wanted this job, but it is the most perfect place for me. I use everything I have in this job every single day. On any given day I might serve a meal, take pictures, meet a corporate group, go out and speak. There’s nothing I have that I don’t use.
6. Follow your passion.
Music has always been an important part of my life. I’ve always found singing very cathartic, not so much for my audiences as it turns out, which I thought was not fair. Why would God or the universe give me this passion for music and not give me the chops to back it up? People had always said ‘Follow your passion,’ and I always thought that was a cruel twist of fate until I came to work here. I took that passion, that desire and created a music program. My life is really, really good and I need music every single day. I can’t imagine if you were essentially living your worst day over and over and over again, what it would be without music. So I started having musicians come in and play for our homeless guests. Music is so powerful. Then we started Art With a Mission where we provide art supplies to our homeless community and Laughter With a Mission where we have comedians come in and we host open mics where our homeless people can get up and perform.
What I learned through that experience is that sometimes God or the universe gives us these desires and passions not for us to shine, but for it to shine through us. So what I’ve learned through all of these experiences is to follow these passions and desires but stay out of the result.
Georgia Berkovich at WMAM | Photo Courtesy of Georgia Berkovich
Georgie Berkovich at Annual Program Participant Christmas Lunch | Photo Courtesy Georgia Berkovich
7. Own your choices.
I am here for whatever lessons I’m supposed to learn in this life. I believe that I’m going to be delivered those lessons really regardless of what choice I make. Back to my example earlier, if I’m a grocery checker, the lessons I’m here to learn are going to be delivered in a different way than if I chose to be a brain surgeon. I’m still going to have those same lessons that I’m to learn in this lifetime, they’re just going to delivered differently. So, there really are no wrong decisions – it’s how I treat people each day. Is the biggest difference I’m going to make today on skid row in Los Angeles, where I’m attending this homeless policy meeting where they are making a big decision today on a case? Is that going to be the biggest thing I do today? Or is it going to be the interaction that I have with the person at the gas station? I don’t know, but I just know I need to be awake and present for all of it.
8. Embrace your past, have no regrets.
What makes me awake and present for all of it is from the 12-Steps work that I’ve done. I’ve gotten rid of all the baggage of my past. And now my past, which felt like my greatest liability, is now my greatest asset. All of these things that have happened to me, to bring me to this moment are now gold. It’s gold that I can use that experience to change the things that I’m going through or to help someone else who’s going through it now. So, I don’t have any regrets. If anything, I wish I had surrendered sooner to these ideas, that I stopped fighting.
9. Share your story.
One of the greatest gifts about working at The Midnight Mission is that most of the staff here have either been through The Midnight Mission program or are sober as well. So my people say, ‘You don’t know how I feel,’ we can say, ‘No, we do know how you feel and this is what we did. We’re just a few 24 hours ahead of you.’ There’s so much power in talking to people who have direct experience with the issue you’re having.
The power of identification, of having the same experience, to really say ‘I’ve been where you are and this is how I got out’ or ‘I’ve been where you are and this is what I did, what worked and didn’t work.’ Everything comes down to communication. It’s all about sharing our stories and sharing our solutions and talking to people and not being afraid.
A lot of people think about homeless people as being the ‘The Homeless’ and they put them in this little category. It’s almost like they believe there’s an ‘Us’ and then there’s ‘Them, The Homeless.’ There is no ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’ There’s only ‘Us.’ And the people who are living on our streets are you and me, divided by circumstance. They are somebody’s child, brother, sister, they are you or me. And sometimes we forget that. We forget that nobody ever dreamed of being homeless, nobody ever thought ‘I’m going to live on the street. I won’t have to pay rent and this is going to be glamorous’. There’s a series of things that happen before somebody relinquishes their life to homelessness. It’s a slow decline. It’s not an overnight thing. People are homeless for varied reasons. It could be mental illness, which is a large part of it, or it can be addiction or circumstantial.
10. Be yourself, everywhere.
I am who I am right now: At work, at home, at meetings, at conferences, with the girls I sponsor, with my boyfriend. I am the same everywhere. There aren’t categories in my life. I don’t compartmentalize. It’s not like, ‘Ok, I’m in work mode now, now I’m in friend mode, now I’m in recovery mode.’ I’m just in this mode all the time. I move through the world like that. I’m trying to make a difference wherever I am, with whomever I’m with. I have ridiculous amount of fun or else I wouldn’t be able to keep doing it. We laugh a lot in recovery and we laugh a lot here at The Mission. We have really fun events and celebrations and just try to enjoy every day. With the music and the arts programs, people will say to me ‘It’s an hour and a half out of a day, how is that going to make a difference to somebody who’s experiencing homelessness?’ Well, those moments of sweetness, where we all come together and have a shared experience, can create hope in someone and when someone feels hope, they are more likely to ask for help and when they do ask for help, we can provide all the tools they need. I’m in that mode all the time: trying to encourage people to have fun, to enjoy the moments – that’s kinda what my days look like here.
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