10 Dedicated & Deserving Social Workers
Every year, Social Work Today asks our readers to nominate their peers by sharing stories of the wonderful things they are doing in the field. There's no question that social workers bring real change to the communities they work with—and beyond. Often, those efforts don't get recognized to the extent they deserve.
That's why we love hearing your stories. It's always difficult to narrow down our list to just 10, but we've read all of your essays and selected the finalists for this year.
We are honored to share their stories with you here.
Jonathan Beer, MSW, LCSW
Having grown up in Israel, Jonathan Beer attended the University of Haifa there, receiving a degree in gerontology. After graduating, he realized that he really wanted to work with older adults on a personal level and decided he should consider a career in social work. Beer came to the United States to pursue his MSW from Florida Atlantic University, remaining passionate about working with older adults. Upon graduation, Beer came to work for Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services where he does case management and works with Holocaust survivors.
Beer says he does a lot of home visits and helps ensure his clients have the services that they need. But it's often just sitting down and hearing their stories that he finds the most compelling. All four of Beer's grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so it's something that Beer says is very close to his heart.
"I have heard some very emotional stories about these individuals' experiences during the Holocaust," Beer says. "It's very moving. This is a historic event in time and every day we have fewer survivors still living. It's a privilege to be able to hear their stories face-to-face."
Beer says that his favorite aspect of the work is being part of such a close-knit community that is very involved and really cares about its members. And, he says, he gets to "help people in need," which has always been a passion.
His advice to future social workers would be to pursue their own passion so that they can truly love what they do every day.
"Find what it is that drives you," he says. "Some people are passionate about helping those with substance abuse. Others are passionate about helping kids. For me, I was passionate about working with older adults. My best advice is to find that niche—that passion—and to stick with it."
Paul Brylske, MSW, LCSW-C
Paul Brylske has been with Kennedy Krieger Institute since 1985, first as an outpatient psychotherapist. When the Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) program was founded in 1987, Brylske first served as the supervisor coordinator and in 2000 became the director, where he has been ever since. Up until recently, he was still also using his spare time to work in private practice as a family therapist.
"Family therapy is my background, and I still see myself as a family therapist," Brylske says. "We designed the TFC program to be a family-centered program."
Brylske says that he knows foster care can get a "bad rap" but that his experience has never been like that.
"A day doesn't go by that we don't have something positive happen in a child's life," he says. "Negative things happen sometimes, but not nearly as often as a lot of people seem to believe. There is great work being done."
Besides the kids, Brylske says it's the variety that keeps him passionate and inspired about his work. He has had the opportunity to do a lot of training with families, a lot of research, and even some policy work.
"The field of social work has allowed me to do a little bit of everything, so I never get bored," he says. "Social work as a profession allows for a lot of variety, which keeps it exciting."
In the past, Brylske has chaired the Maryland Association of Resources and Families TFC Coalition and been an active member of the Family Focused Treatment Association's national research committee as well as its local chapters. For two decades, Brylske has also been a strong advocate for data-based decision making in Kennedy Krieger's programming.
"We need to be focused on effectiveness and outcomes," he says. "We can't just think something is going to work. We need to back that up. I believe in having science behind the decisions we make and why we make them."
Deborah S. Harburger, MSW
Deborah Harburger always assumed she would be a teacher or an attorney one day. But after discovering developmental psychology in high school, Harburger says she fell in love. It married all of the things that she was interested in. She went on to major in psychology at Penn State and was heavily involved in Schreyer Honors College, known for fostering future leaders. Harburger ultimately decided that a career in social work would afford her the flexibility to do more public service work.
Harburger is a trained Title IV-E public child welfare social worker with more than a decade of experience in public child- and family-serving systems. But she admits when she "signed up" for public child welfare in school she wasn't sure exactly what she was getting into.
"My first field placement was doing foster care, which was not what I thought I would be doing," Harburger says. "I had a vision of myself doing play therapy or parent education, and I kept thinking, 'What did I get into?' But I absolutely fell in love with the child welfare system and in many ways, feel like it found me."
Today, Harburger works with states, local communities, and individual programs to identify sustainable financing mechanisms to support community-based services and supports. Harburger is the project director of the Thrive@25 Phase II Implementation Grant, which is a three-year, $2 million implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children and Families, Children's Bureau to end and prevent homelessness among youth and young adults. Harburger is also involved with Youth REACH (Reach out, Engage, Assist and Count to end Homelessness) MD. And she is lead consultant for the TA Network, working directly with states.
Harburger also teaches and says she loves engaging with students.
"The opportunity to influence students is such a privilege," Harburger says. "They need to understand policy and how to engage with it rather than be intimidated by it. I often feel as though my original dream of becoming a teacher is coming full circle."
Ashley McSwain, LGSW, MSOD
For nearly 25 years, Ashley McSwain has worked with women caught in the criminal justice system. She says that career began as a probation officer in Philadelphia. It was there that she says she got her first taste of providing "social services" even though she wasn't a social worker. From that position she moved into a role as a case manager serving homeless families.
"I can remember doing house calls and having a lot I wanted to say but just didn't know how," McSwain recalls. "I didn't have the right skills or tools. But, through social work, I found my voice. I felt I was given the opportunity to convey the voices of the unheard."
And that's what McSwain continues to do in her current role as the executive director of Community Family Life Services, Inc. (CFLS), an organization that provides tools and resources needed to move beyond poverty and homelessness. CFLS also supports women who are returning home following a period of incarceration by assisting them as they move into permanent self-sufficiency.
"Women returning from prison are one of the most underserved groups in the city," McSwain says. "They are at high risk for falling into homelessness or slipping back into a life of crime."
McSwain meets with clients, finds out about their experiences, and then communicates those experiences to be a voice for the unheard. She says she hosts focus groups and runs surveys, as she believes many of these individuals do not have anyone representing their experiences accurately.
Prior to coming to CFLS, McSwain served as the executive director for Our Place, DC, an organization in DC serving female returning citizens. McSwain also spent a decade working as deputy director for the Bucks County Housing Group, where she oversaw the simultaneous management of five homeless shelters and three transitional housing programs.
Justin "Jay" Miller, PhD, MSW, CSW
Justin "Jay" Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, knows what it's like to be shuffled in and out of foster care. Miller's mother died when he was only 7 years old, leaving him and his younger sisters in the care of their father, who battled addiction to crack cocaine. After neglect and physical abuse, Miller ultimately wound up in the foster care system and began what he would call a "carousel of placements" into people's homes. During this turbulent childhood, Miller can recall one caseworker who "seemed preoccupied with other things." It was in meeting this individual that Miller was inspired to become a social worker—and to do better.
"While I didn't know at the time what she did or even how to become what she was, I did know that I wanted to do it and do it better," he says.
Miller eventually was pulled from the system and he and his sisters were taken by an aunt and uncle in Germany, where Miller says his life began to turn around. He stayed in Germany until he went to college at Western Kentucky University in 1999. He has since made it a personal mission to ensure young people do not experience the system in the way he had to experience it.
Along with his teaching and research at the University of Kentucky, Miller is also heavily engaged in foster care advocacy and serves as the president of Foster Care Alumni of America — Kentucky. He also serves as chair of the Kentucky Board of Social Work and chair of Kentucky's Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, among other endeavors. Miller recently traveled to Malta for the International Foster Care Organization meeting to talk about his research and conduct a workshop on how institutions can more adeptly support collegiate foster care alumni.
Miller remains as passionate about social work as ever before.
"I believe that social work is not something that you simply do—a social worker is who you are," he says. "As such, I have an innate desire to help people. It's internal. That desire is fueled by my personal and professional experiences. As a young person, there were times when I needed help and individuals in my life afforded me that help. So, I honor them by paying it forward."
Beena Parekh, LCSW
Working in hospice is not exactly an easy job, but Beena Parekh says she has learned death does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. Her goal is to make it a "peaceful journey" whenever she can. As a hospice social worker, Parekh says she gets most of her inspiration and passion from the families she works with day in and day out.
"Watching families gather together to be there as their loved one moves on in his or her journey is just so inspiring," she says. "I've learned that death is a part of living—it's a cycle of life—and my goal is to make it as positive as it can be in those final months or days."
Parekh, who is originally from India, came to the United States as a teenager. Her mother had been a social worker in India and Parekh had been exposed to the field early on. In fact, she calls her mother one of her biggest influencers in pursuing social work herself. Prior to working for Bon Secours, Parekh spent 12 years in the mental health field.
One of Parekh's major strengths in hospice work is her sensitivity to cultural diversity. Parekh respects differences and advocates that patients receive the care they prefer based on their beliefs.
"I think a lot of that comes from having moved to a small town in the United States where very few other people looked like me or my family," Parekh says. "I am in tune with diversity and what it's like to be a minority. But I also think that social work is excellent at teaching respect for individual beliefs."
As far as why she got into the field in the first place, Parekh says she was certainly inspired by her mother but also had a desire to work with people.
"I've always loved working with people—talking to them and hearing their stories," Parekh says. "It's very rewarding to help people become more self-sufficient and independent."
Jennifer L. Parker, MSW, LCSW
For eight years, Jennifer L. Parker has served the Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. She pioneered to cocreate a Mental Health Court and now serves as senior mental health specialist for the district. Parker's focus areas are clients with serious and persistent mental health disorders and high-risk violent offenders. She has an extra subinterest in gang offenders with mental illness. While Parker is passionate about the work, it's not necessarily what she envisioned doing.
In fact, Parker's undergraduate degree is in biology and she had all intentions of pursuing a future in naturopathic medicine. However, after graduation and a stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa doing agricultural work, Parker says her life was altered "in a good way."
"When I came back to the States I started working on an organic farm, just as a way of reentering society," Parker says. "On a whim, I applied to a social work program in St. Louis, never expecting to get in—but I did."
Parker's first practicum was with an urban community gardening agency that partnered with a social service agency serving mostly homeless individuals. The garden project was a means of helping clients that had mental health and substance abuse issues.
"That was my first introduction to the criminal justice system," Parker recalls. "I never would have thought I'd like individual client work but then my first job was an offender reentry program and I just loved it. It was obvious that's where I was meant to be."
Parker says that she likes helping people navigate systems and address barriers. Today, Parker is also pursuing a PhD in criminology at the University of Missouri.
"My interest there is on the impact of racism in the criminal justice system," Parker says. "That's something that is very easy to see on a day-to-day basis."
As far as never thinking she'd like individual client work, Parker says it's now a passion.
"I just genuinely love to talk to people," she says. "I like to hear their stories and let them talk. Sometimes it's more about listening than anything else. So often it's easy to just slip into business mode and just get the work done. However, what people sometimes want is just to talk, to share their feelings, and I like to listen."
Zach Pruitt, MSW
While in graduate school at the University of Chicago, a position at the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative (HCI) opened in Northfield, MN. Though Zach Pruitt says he has always lived in big cities, the opportunity to take this role is "exactly why" he was in graduate school in the first place. He got the job and moved to Minnesota—and that was 13 years ago.
"We are an intermediary to youth in the community and try new ideas such as addressing issues with high school drop-out or opiate use," Pruitt explains. "We are always looking at ways that we can work collectively to try and solve those issues."
Since taking on the role, Pruitt has helped leverage assets to bring in $9 million in public and private funds. He has helped found a local Drug Court and has enabled the Latino graduation rate to grow from 36% to 92%. Yet he is humble—and always focused on putting youth first.
"I'm proud to do this work," he says. "It's humbling to know that we have the ability to impact lives—to make real change."
Besides all the work that he has done with youth through HCI, Pruitt faced a defining moment in his own life when he says he had the chance to either "follow through on his values," or let an opportunity pass. When two abandoned brothers (a 7th-grader and an 11th-grader) were in need of being adopted, Pruitt (in his 20s at the time), stepped up to the plate and became their legal guardian.
"It was a moment to truly live my values," Pruitt says. "It was far and away both the greatest and the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. But the choice to follow through with it was clear. It was exactly what I believed in doing."
Christopher Solomon, MSW
Christopher Solomon has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of child welfare, child mental health, sex abuse, substance use, LGBT issues, aging, and development disabilities. He says those 20-plus years of field experience were critical in order for him to bring experience to teaching—which is what he ultimately wanted to do. Today, as the clinical field instructor at North Carolina Central University, Solomon says it is that experience he has in the field that he thinks his students appreciate most.
"My teaching style is to mix current event information into my lessons all of the time," Solomon says. "Every day I tell them to come to class with a current event and we talk about it. I'll say, 'Tell me, as a social worker, what role you could have played in this scenario.'"
Solomon is known for going above and beyond the call of duty to not only teach students but also place them in meaningful field experiences and give them practical advice that he garnered from his own time in the field. Solomon's office hours are packed with students seeking his guidance and advice. But no matter how long the line, or the time of day, Solomon never turns any students away.
It is his students that keep Solomon passionate.
"I always say, 'I want you to be better than me,'" he says. "That's my goal for my students. I'm proud to be invested in their futures. I want them to do well—and do everything they can do."
Solomon says he loves seeing students go on to graduate and to push beyond their walls—doing more than even they thought they could.
"I tell my students—you just may be the next pioneer in something!" he says. "You can do whatever it is that you choose to do."
Dianne Rush Woods, PhD, MSW, LCSW
While at the University of California, Berkeley, Dianne Rush Woods says that an experience volunteering for a halfway house for women coming out of prison was a turning point that ultimately led her to the field of social work.
"At the time, I was a sociology major and getting lost in theories," Rush Woods recalls. "But this experience helped me to understand theory in practice. I also felt like I was doing something that mattered, and I realized it was the kind of work I wanted to pursue."
Following her graduation from Berkeley, Rush Woods was accepted at UCLA where she got her MSW. Over the years she has worked in the mental health and substance abuse areas in various clinical roles. She ultimately transitioned into academia. At California State University, East Bay, she has served as a field director, professor, and department chair, and now is the university's first-ever diversity officer. Rush Woods is also one of the founding members of the department of social work.
As an educator, Rush Woods says she is constantly evaluating not what is taught but how it is taught. As a young person, Rush Woods says she grew up extraordinarily poor. She had an advisor once tell her to focus on typing class because she would not be going to college and would need to find a secretarial job upon graduation.
"She thought she was helping me," Rush Woods says. "Having faced obstacles like that, as well as individuals like that, helped me realize that I want to be the person that opens the door and encourages students. I'm constantly inspired by them as they grow to see the opportunities they have ahead of them."
— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.