Column all of us have the capacity to help others ’empty their suitcases’ opinion gas engineer salary


As a “Baby Boomer,” I grew up during a tumultuous period in our nation’s history but had the good fortune to have loving parents who supported me unconditionally. They also understood that it was important to put these tumultuous societal changes into proper context for me.

For example, their handling of the civil rights movement taught me to embrace social change activities when it led to the enhancement of freedoms and liberties for disenfranchised citizens. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” I was prepared to hear his aspirational dream because my parents had already been modeling respect for other races.

I grew up watching my parents embrace the changes that challenged their traditional beliefs because they recognized the correctness in Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” By their example, I chose to lead a life of service to assist others whose lives were marked by hardship, inequalities and violence.

Now, after 38 years in human services, I estimate that I have assisted more than 2,500 women and children. That’s 2,500 stories of rape, sexual molestation, child abuse and domestic violence. Their stories cross my mind like the images one sees from the inside of a train as it rushes by the countryside. Sometimes I can slow the train down and recall each of their stories in detail. Sometimes their recalled stories still move me to tears.

Recently, a friend of mine shared a story about his nephew who was being abused by a neighbor. As he began to share the devastating details of the abuse, I cut him off and said that I couldn’t stand to hear any more. He seemed surprised by my response but let it pass.

Sometimes I get a message on my mobile device that says, “Memory almost full,” and I wondered if my capacity for empathy was “almost full.” If so, I wondered, how would I ever work another 10 years in this field as I planned? For a full two days, I actually gave serious consideration to changing jobs.

One of my agency’s therapists told me about a little girl she has been counseling for the past two years. The therapist told this little girl that she was going to help her “empty her suitcase” of all the bad memories emanating from past abuse. After two years of therapy, this young girl told her therapist that her “suitcase was finally empty” and that there was nothing more to talk about. The therapist was overjoyed. The two of them hugged and spent the rest of the session saying goodbye to one another and finding closure. As the little girl walked out the door, she turned and looked back at her therapist and said, “Love ya.”

Almost immediately, I felt my capacity for empathy replenished. I realized that if I was going to finish the race I had begun and fulfill my life’s mission to help others, then I was going to need to hear more stories of hope and recovery. For this to happen, I would need the community’s help.

Bruce Harlan is executive director of Meadville-based Women’s Services Inc. Women’s Services has been providing hope and resources to victims of violence and advocating to end it since 1977. For more information, visit