The Do Gooders Podcast Episode 133: How to live with gratitude every day with Joaquin Galvan

133: How to live with gratitude every day with Joaquin Galvan

What are you grateful for today? Does your life experience help build the list?

For Joaquin Galvan, it certainly does.

He’s the Director of Railton Place, a transitional and supportive housing program of The Salvation Army in San Francisco’s Tenderloin community.

And the path that led him here is not what you might expect.

As he says, you can’t plan life.

Joaquin is on the show to share more about his own experience, how it shapes the way he interacts with the residents under his care today, and why he lives with gratitude with a simple goal each and every day.

Show highlights include:

  • More about The Salvation Army’s Railton Place.
  • What an average day entails for Joaquin Galvan.
  • A picture of the Tenderloin community.
  • Joaquin’s simple, daily goal and why he set it.
  • His previous experience in education.
  • How Joaquin came to work for The Salvation Army.
  • How he concentrates on gratitude despite his experience.
  • How he uses his experience in his role today.
  • A resident Joaquin is proud of.
  • What he is grateful for today.
  • His best advice for how to live with gratitude every day.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Christin Thieme: Joaquin, welcome to the Do Gooders Podcast. Thank you so much for being here with me today.

Joaquin Galvan: Thank you for having me, Christin. It’s an honor to represent The Salvation Army and Railton Place.

Christin Thieme: Definitely. We’re excited to hear more about that work that you’re doing there. I know that Railton Place is a transitional and permanent supportive housing program in San Francisco. Can you tell us, as the director there at Railton Place, more about what Railton Place is, and the work that you do?

Joaquin Galvan: Okay. Railton Place is a 110-unit building. They are our studio apartments for those that are ready to take ownership of their life and move forward with our assistance. We have aged-out foster youth, we have veterans, and we have transitional units as well, and permanent housing.

So what we do is we help them with independent living skills. We have a case manager that is working with them on basic skills, like how to clean your apartment, how to cook, how to set up appointments for medical.

We also work with recovery. We have a case manager that’s running harm reduction groups on a weekly basis. We help them with mental health as well, individual or in the group setting.

The case managers also work closely with programs in the community that bring in workforce development, education, and other programs that offer permanent housing.

So when the transitional living residents move out, we want them to be in a better place, both educationally, independent at the workforce, and transition them into permanent housing.

And through the team of six, including myself, that I have here, our goal is to meet their needs and help them go onto the next step.

Christin Thieme: There is a lot going on there, it sounds like. What does an average day for you entail?

Joaquin Galvan: An average day for me… It’s different every day. I can have a planned schedule and…

Christin Thieme: Not get to it?

Joaquin Galvan: Not get to it. Maybe two of the 10 items listed on there. So I like to have a structured schedule where there’s things that I know I need to get done.

For example, we have meetings. Weekly meetings with the staff. There’s lots of check-ins with the Kroc staff as well. It’s the community center that covers the first two floors of the building. And they run a lot of different activities and connections with the community. So I check in with them, and see how we can continue to grow together as a team and help each other.

I also have lots of video meetings. Lots of Zoom calls. Lots of FaceTime. And in those meetings, I work with the liaisons of each program, with the aged-out foster youth program liaison, or we have a meeting with the veterans’ liaisons. Our partners, basically. And we just meet to check to see if there’s anything we need for assistance, or they need from us, or anything coming up in an audit that we need to address.

And eventually we get to lunch. And then in the afternoon, the case managers are meeting with the residents, the clients, on regular basis. And I just check in with them, to see if there’s anything they need.

I go around and say hello to the residents when I see them in the hallway or the elevator. And just try to make everybody feel like we’re a team here. It’s not just The Salvation Army resident program.

Christin Thieme: And you’re located in San Francisco, right in the Tenderloin community. For those who aren’t familiar with the area, can you give us a little picture of that neighborhood?

Joaquin Galvan: Yes, absolutely. The Tenderloin is described as one of the roughest areas in San Francisco. There’s a great deal of drug trafficking, possible sex trafficking, great deal of homeless on the street, people using drugs, selling drugs, defecating and urinating on the sidewalk.

So when you’re moving through, it’s sad to see human beings laying on the ground. And you’re watching them either sleep or doing drugs right on the spot. You can find syringes on the ground every day.

And the sad thing is we have children and their families walking through these neighborhoods, trying to get to school and to work.
And I’ve been here 10 months now and I haven’t seen a change. It’s pretty devastating to see on regular basis. And it’s sad to see that this is happening, and it’s okay, but let’s say you get on BART, and you get fined $250 for eating potato chips.

The priorities are not where they should be. We should be taking care of our human being friends. If there was a place on earth where Jesus would be, it would be the Tenderloin area. And he could be one of the homeless out there, or he could be one of us trying to make a difference.

Christin Thieme: Yeah. Definitely an area in need of The Salvation Army.

Joaquin Galvan: Yes.

Christin Thieme: And in the midst of all of that, I’ve heard that you have a goal of making one person smile every day. Why did you set that goal?

Joaquin Galvan: It kind of developed over time, and it opened my eyes. And then I felt like, “Yeah, this is how I’m making a difference.”

It started when I was working in education, and I’ll get into that a little later. I was a school psychologist in an elementary school, and there was about 800 students there. And of course, I was only assigned to the school two days a week, so I was never able to learn everybody’s name.

However, when I walked onto the playground, the kids made me feel like a rock star, like a movie star. They would be yelling from across the playground, “Mr. Galvan, Mr. Galvan.” And they would run toward me. High fives, hugs, everything.

And I would look at these smiling faces, and I think, “Wow. I don’t know them, but they know me. I must have done something that made a difference in their life for them to seek me out like this.” So every day I would say, “Thank you, God, for whatever it was that I did, and you put me there.”

So then as I continued in my career, I would hear adults in education and other businesses complain about, “I’m never going to be a teacher of the year. They only pick the popular people.” “I’m not going to be administrator of the year.”

And my response to them was, “I’m the school psychologist of the year every single day, because I can make a kid smile, and I don’t even know who they are.”

So my goal was, if I can make a kid smile every day, I’m already making a difference, because then they’re going to go on with that impact and do the same thing, hopefully.

So I took that with The Salvation Army. I used to work in a shelter. I started in a shelter. And the guests that would live in the shelter would always compliment me and say, “Well, you’re a nice guy. You’re the only one that really says hello to us and acknowledges us.”

And I sat down with them and was like, “Well, what do you mean?” It was like, “Well, you make us feel like we’re human.” And the smile on their face kind of made me feel like, “Wow, God, you really put me where I needed to be now.”

Because not only did I make kids smile, now I feel like I was connecting with these adults, making them feel human, just by having a simple conversation, saying, “Hello, how are you doing?” And that brought a smile to their face, making their day better.

So that’s why I look at life now…If I can make someone smile, then I made a difference. And it doesn’t matter if I know the person. It could be somebody on the street. It doesn’t matter. It’s like I’ve been given this gift by God, and it just seems to be working really well, and I feel blessed.

Christin Thieme: So simple but so meaningful at the same time. I love that.

Joaquin Galvan: Yes, thank you.

Christin Thieme: So you mentioned that you didn’t always work for The Salvation Army. You were a school psychologist. What did you do in that role?

Joaquin Galvan: As a school psychologist, I worked for 17 years, and then I moved up to a vice principal for three years. So as a school psychologist, what I did is I did a lot of testing for special education and for GATE. I also did a lot of behavior contracts with teachers, parents and students. I did a lot of social skills presentations for kids. And that developed into a life skills drama program, that eventually grew from 10 kids the first year to 100 kids on the fifth year.

And those drama programs that we performed were from a website. It was a Christian website, and the message was still delivered even though, because it was a school, I needed to edit out the part that said Jesus or Lord.

But I left a message, and it was very powerful how quickly the program grew. And it was supported by the community, where even other schools were calling us to go and perform for them.

So I took that upon myself to continue to grow. And then I started a safety patrol and I was teaching leadership for the kids. I did a lot of counseling.

I went out to recess every single day, because I felt that is where their safe zone is. And if I get their trust in their safe zone, when it comes to a crisis, they’ll be able to trust me because they already know who I am.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. And then you mentioned you later started with The Salvation Army as a shelter monitor in Modesto. How did you come to be part of The Salvation Army?

Joaquin Galvan: What I’m about to share is too perfect to believe it was by accident. I believe God put this in play, and it just rolled from there too perfectly, where I can’t even describe how well it was. I can’t even identify the time that I realized, “Wow, this is God,” until after the fact.

So basically, I was incarcerated, falsely accused of threatening somebody. And while in jail, I was asking for a counselor to speak with me, because I was struggling. And they never came.

So then I asked for a chaplain. And this chaplain happened to be from one of the largest churches in Modesto. So he came to me, and I worked with him once a week. He taught me how to read the Bible from a whole different perspective and apply it to my life. And it basically helped me survive in there.

When I got out, he connected me with the chaplain at the church that would provide counseling for me on the outside. And after about seven months, I was still unemployed, and nobody would hire me. Not even the warehouses, because they said, “You don’t have any warehouse experience. You’ve only worked behind a desk.” But then I couldn’t get a job behind a desk because I had a record.

So what happened was, this chaplain invited me to a Bible study. At that Bible study was the business administrator from Modesto. His name is Paul Turner. And I met with him. He listened to my story, and he invited me for an interview for an administrative assistant.

At the interview, he realized, “Wow, you have a lot more experience than we need for this job. You’re overqualified. Let me see what I can do.” And then he talked to Major Harold Laubach in Modesto. And together they worked on finding me the best suitable position for me.

I was offered a deputy director job and then a director job. Both of them were declined by headquarters because of the background, and it was too soon that I was just freshly out of jail. So I needed to earn it, basically, by showing who I was and what I was about.

So I took the janitor, shelter monitor job, making minimum wage, which was fine by me. I just wanted to get back into the field to help people. And from there, I got promoted to being a social services assistant to the case worker, three months later. So then I was working in the office, and I was still being a janitor.

After that, I was promoted to being a case manager. And that was through the director at the time, Virginia Carney. She went to the headquarters and asked permission to promote me to a case manager, because she felt that I was more than capable of doing it, because of my background.

I was also writing for the New Frontier Chronicle. I was submitting articles. And I think they felt like, “Okay, I’m making a difference. Let’s give him a chance.”

So I became a case manager, probably for about six or eight months. Then I met the HR director at the time. His name was John Tranchitella. And I introduced myself to him, and he thanked me for what I was doing. And he said, “You have our support. I know you want to be in management. You want to be a director. When you see something out there, go ahead and apply for it. We’ll support you this time.”

And so I did. I started looking on The Salvation Army website, because I did not want to leave Salvation Army. I wanted to be here, because they gave me a chance and I was going to give them a hundred percent.

And eventually I found three positions. Director in Seattle, director in San Jose, and the other one here in San Francisco. And I prayed about it. I talked to my family about it. And when I started to speak with Stacy here at HR, Stacy Smith, I felt better and better about The Salvation Army Railton Place director.

However, I did not apply the first time around. I, so to speak, chickened out. So then I started praying some more, talking to people. And Captain Sam Snyder, he told me, he said, “Go for it. It’s your chance. God is setting you up to make a bigger difference.”

So hearing that, it just kind of broke the fear. So then I applied. And I just felt like I steamrolled through the interviews. They were just so perfect. I felt so great. And I just felt like, this is way beyond anybody’s control. And I felt like God blessed me to be in this position because of where I’d been, my background. And I could connect with people who have gone through that situation.

Christin Thieme: Yeah, you mentioned feeling blessed to have a chance to do this work. Not everyone would say that they feel blessed after such an experience. So how do you concentrate on that gratitude?

Joaquin Galvan: Well, I think about everything that I went through in the last three years… Four years now… I think about everything that I went through when I was incarcerated and all the people that were affected. And I lost a lot of friends. I lost a lot of support from family members. And now I just have a close, tight circle of friends and family that are very supportive.

And I look back and just take one day at a time, one breath at a time. Because I feel like you can’t plan life. And that’s a quote from my friend Kevin. He says, “You can’t plan life. You plan it and everything changes.”

So a lot of times I like to think, “Okay, God, it’s in your hands. I’m going to ride the rollercoaster. Take me where it’s going to go.”

And the Scripture that I focus on every single day… It’s in my car, it’s in my office… It’s Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.”

And I look at that every day. I take one step at a time. Every day is a new day, a new challenge, a new blessing. And I just do what I can to make a difference in other people.

Christin Thieme: How do you use your experience in influencing those who are in your care now, as the director?

Joaquin Galvan: Well, this will go back to a short story I’ll share with you from when I was inside. When I was incarcerated, it was at a county jail, and three months into it I got really, really depressed, right before I saw the chaplain for the first time.
And I was having suicidal ideation and whatnot. And there was another guy there, that stepped up, and came up to me. And he talked to me about all the great things that I have going for myself. And he said, “When you get out, you’re going to go back to your family and friends.” And I said, “What are you talking about? You are too.” And he said, “No, I’m going to go back to the streets.”

At that point, I realized that he was homeless and he was going to return to the streets. And here I am crying about stuff, and I was going to go back to my house, and my family, and my friends. I did not realize that was his situation. And he was being so strong about life and so blessed.

And that kind of turned my thinking around, where, “Wow, these people I’m in here with, they’re not bad people. They just made bad choices. And they’re just trying to make it day by day as well.”

So I took that experience and I bring it with me. Because I see people here that I might have been afraid of five, six years ago, but because of my experience…They’re people. They just need to be loved.

And when I got my job as the shelter monitor, janitor in Modesto, a year after I was out of jail, the first person that I recognized there…I think it was my third day…Was the man who talked to me in jail.

His name was Scotty. He ran up to me and gave me a hug. And he said, “See, I knew you could do it. I knew you could do it.”

Christin Thieme: Wow.

Joaquin Galvan: And I gave him a big hug back, and I said, “You know what, Scotty? Now I’m in a position to help you.” And it was just a big wake up call of how blessed I have been, how my life turned around, and how I am able to use my experience, and treat everybody with love and respect. Because we’re humans. We deserve that.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. In the time that you’ve been there at Railton, is there a story of a resident or somebody, that you could share? Somebody that you’re especially proud of?

Joaquin Galvan: Yes. There is a gentleman in the aged-out foster youth program. And when I first got here, he came to me, and he basically vented about his frustrations living here and the lack of connection he had.

Unfortunately, he came at a time where there was lots of transition with the staff, from case managers to directors, to officers. So I felt like he was one of the ones that got lost in the shuffle.

So he became very defensive, very combative, very defiant. And he was getting tons and tons of incident reports of the rules that he’s been breaking.

And then I talked to him one day, because his mother had passed away. And I talked to him, and I told him my story about being in jail. And I told him my story about how my dad just recently passed away in February, and I understand his pain.

And me being much older, and have the training that I had, I knew that he was nowhere close to being able to cope with it. So I reached out to him, and his case manager was there. And he was very grateful.

Since that day, he still verbally complains, but the incident reports have all but disappeared. And he’s attending more meetings for his program. He’s meeting with his case manager more often. And he’s on his way to hopefully a successful exit at the end of the year.

And what I said to him was, “Look, we’re giving you all the support that we can, but if you’re not going to do your part, we’re going to be stuck.” And he put his fist out. He’s like, “Thank you, Joaquin. We’re cool. I gotcha. I gotcha.”

So as of today, he’s doing pretty good. And I know he’s been meeting with his case manager, even as recent as yesterday, where before, it would go weeks and weeks and weeks before we knew what he was up to. So I’m very proud of him.

Christin Thieme: Yeah. It must be cool to see, over time, to see that growth.

Joaquin Galvan: Yes. Because my first week, he was here. He came into my office, and I saw this young man just completely out of it, disconnected from everything and really upset.

And the case manager we have for aged-out foster youth, her name’s Grace, and she’s doing a great job with that program. And she’s reached out to him as well, and he’s responding well. He’s doing a good job.

Christin Thieme: I love it. Well, this is the season of gratitude. So I’m wondering, what are you grateful for today?

Joaquin Galvan: I am grateful of where I’m at in my life. I feel that God has put me in a position to help many people and to guide my team. And also, my mental health, my emotional health, is pretty stable and solid at this point.
And that comes not just from counseling, but from reading the Scripture, and the captains that I have around me right now, Captain Arwyn and Captain Craig. I’m learning from them and growing spiritually as well.

So I feel that God has surrounded me with the perfect job, the perfect staff and supervisors. Because everybody here that I work with loves Jesus, and we’re growing together. So I feel that this was the best decision I’ve made in my life in many, many years. And sometimes I look around in my office, and I see my business card that says ‘director,’ and I just sit here and look at it in awe, thinking, “Wow, just four years ago, I was number 1440667, and at the bottom of society. And they thought I was the worst person and I was a criminal. And now I’m a director, and I met the mayor. And I was a felon, according to the law. And the bottom line is, with God, anything is possible. Anything.

Christin Thieme: What’s your best advice, or one tangible tip you would give somebody listening, on how to live with more gratitude today?

Joaquin Galvan: Well, the first thing you have to do is look at your own life, and look at what you’re grateful for. Or look at what you already have, what you’re blessed with.

And I’m not talking about items, or, “Oh, I’m glad I have oxygen in my lungs today.” You got to dig deeper than that. The people around you. Your health. Your job. Just everything that makes you who you are.

And then, when you establish that, and you know who you are, and you feel confident and secure within yourself, then you can start moving forward, and using that to help other people.

And that just takes self-reflection, and one day at a time, and knowing that God is with you, one day at a time, one breath at a time.

Christin Thieme: Yeah. Love it. Well, Joaquin, thank you so much for sharing. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Thank you for the work that you are doing in your community there, with The Salvation Army. And Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Joaquin Galvan: Thank you. You too. Happy Thanksgiving.

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