January/February 2015 Issue
10 Dedicated & Deserving Social Workers
This is our fifth annual "10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers" feature and each year we are amazed by the stories we receive. Many have nominated colleagues, coworkers, and mentors by writing essays that have encouraged and inspired us. We are honored to share the stories of our 10 finalists with you here.
Cynthia K. Bradley-King, PhD, MSW
When Cynthia Bradley-King's eldest son left for college she began experiencing empty nest syndrome. She had him at a young age and didn't feel ready to be finished parenting. While most people might fill that gap with a hobby or an activity, Bradley-King was inspired by a television show about foster care and called the number the show had provided and told them that she would take a child of any background or origin—she just wanted a girl. It turned out there was an 18-month-old girl at a foster home just around the corner and they were looking to move her. After adopting this child, it wasn't long before she got another call about another child in need. As a foster parent, Bradley-King had 15 children come through her home over time and she adopted four of them.
During that time, Bradley-King also returned to school, ultimately earning her master's in social work and her doctorate. Her mother helped care for the children while she was in school. Today, Bradley-King teaches child welfare at the University of Pittsburgh. She is particularly interested in the area of drug abuse, as all of her adopted children have had substance abuse exposure.
"Drug abuse is so prolific and it's incredibly hard to get mothers off of drugs and get themselves together," Bradley-King says. "That terminates their parental rights and these children wind up in foster care, often bouncing through the system."
Among many honors, Bradley-King has earned the Social Worker of the Month award from NASW-PA, and was recently named one of the 50 Women of Excellence by the New Pittsburgh Courier. She volunteers and sits on various local nonprofit boards including the Family Services of Western Pennsylvania Board of Trustees. She is also very involved in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a public service sorority that does a great deal of volunteer work.
Today, the youngest of Bradley-King's adopted children is 21 and currently attending the University of Pittsburgh, while another recently graduated from Pitt and is serving on the security police force. One recently finished a tour of Afghanistan and is currently serving in the Air Force in Guam. Bradley-King's eldest son is a nurse, and her daughter is currently in graduate school for social work. She says she could not be more proud of their accomplishments.
Nancy Ceraso, MSW, LSW
Although she had originally planned to be a physical therapist, spending a year in a body cast at age 16 made Nancy Ceraso feel as though she never wanted to step foot in a doctor's office again. But during rehab, a social worker who came in to check on her changed her life.
"That was the first I had ever heard of the profession," Ceraso says. "She was truly a lifesaver for me. I was very ill and it was a confusing time, but she made a real impact. It ignited a passion in me that I have carried on to this day. I don't even know her name, but she was my social work angel and she is why I ended up in this field."
From day one, Ceraso's specialty has always been children and she knew she wanted to be in the school system. But her first job was in foster care, which she says gave her some very important background on working with families. Following that, Ceraso answered an ad to be a drug and alcohol therapist. In that role, she discovered that there were not a lot of support programs for children, which led her to develop an outreach program offering drug and alcohol groups in school.
"My motto has always been 'grace, grit, and gratitude,'" Ceraso says, describing her job. "Grace is what gets me out of bed each day. I have people that pray for me every day and that encourages me. Grit is because every day is grueling. The paycheck stops at four, but I'm never home before eight or later. And gratitude is because I truly love what I do. There has never been a day where I don't want to go to work."
Aleeza Granote, MSW, LCSW
Aleeza Granote admits that her job is intense—even overwhelming at times. But she also says it's incredibly gratifying and she loves the opportunity she has to help families and make a difference.
"Take today, for example," Granote told us at interview time. "We have a teenager here who has her one-year anniversary with her boyfriend so we are making her a special dinner and have balloons and other fun things coming. I was also able to just help send a 4-year-old boy with a terminal illness to Sea World. He already had his Make-A-Wish trip but we knew that he really wanted to get to Sea World so we helped make that happen. The stories are unbelievable and it's such a joy for me to be part of them. The families are the heroes—I'm just there to help."
And that's what Granote has done her whole life. She's been there to help. When Granote was 12 she responded to an ad for volunteers at a nursing home. While other adolescents were going to the mall or playing video games, Granote was having her parents drop her off at the Alzheimer's unit to spend time with the patients. She did their makeup and helped them bake.
"It just felt like the right thing to do," Granote says. "I never really thought about it being different. I did that for years and later found out I was the youngest volunteer to ever help there."
In college, Granote helped run trick-or-treating events for underprivileged kids on Halloween, volunteered at a soup kitchen, and helped plan other events for those in need. "Frankly I just felt fortunate to be able to have roles where I could organize events like these," she says. "I get excited about organizing events."
And that passion has carried through to today. In addition to the time and energy she gives to her full-time job, Granote has spent countless after-work hours developing her nonprofit organization Card Care Connection, which provides beautifully crafted cards with inspiring messages to patients with cancer nationwide. Since launching in 2011, Granote has collected more than 13,000 cards. She has also recently extended that organization's reach with the Bundles of Cheer program, which also provides care packages to those with cancer. Granote says that every day she is energized by her patients and their families.
"The stories can be so sad—so difficult," she says. "But the way the community comes together to help can also be so inspiring. And there are plenty of happy endings, too. Today we have a 4-year-old who is finishing his treatment for brain cancer. How amazing is that? It's incredible."
Lori Holleran Steiker, PhD, ACSW
Lori Holleran Steiker says she has been touched by recovery from addiction since she was a child. Her mother got sober when Holleran Steiker was 10. As a result, she never attached a stigma to the disease as others often do. In fact, she says it shaped her life.
"I grew up believing in the power of recovery because I witnessed it in my family and have my own personal recovery story as well," Holleran Steiker says.
"I believe the word 'recovery' means a lot of things to a lot of people," Holleran Steiker says. "But the truth is that the stories aren't that different at their core. Unfortunately, there is just a stigma associated with drug and alcohol recovery."
"It's going magnificently well," Holleran Steiker says of its first year. "We're not a mandatory place but one for students to come to who really want to recover. They have to be willing to participate not only in school but in alternative peer groups on evenings and weekends."
Holleran Steiker has also designed the University of Texas' (UT's) first "Young People and Drugs" class which has become one of UT's signature courses and offers hundreds of students a year the opportunity to experience her dynamic teaching and partner in social work–based projects.
"In terms of smashing the stigma associated with recovery, we are so proud of the students in our high school that we bring them in to speak in the 'Young People and Drugs' class," Holleran Steiker says. "They're educating college students about recovery and addiction. It's pretty incredible to watch how it all comes together."
As an associate professor at UT since 2000, Holleran Steiker has received multiple teaching and service awards. She also commits her time to sharing her expertise and experiences to adolescent alternative peer groups, collegiate recovery communities, and college student veterans. Her commitment is to the recovery community and to youth.
Burke Lenz, LCSW, CPT, MS
Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital in Fort Leonard Wood, MO
"What I've liked most about it is the ability to work in a variety of environments and with a variety of people," Lenz says. "I'm currently working in the military but before this I've worked with children and families, in residential settings, doing inpatient work, and even worked with elders for a little bit. I enjoy the variety."
"It's a chance to touch base and see how they're doing," Lenz says. "There is still some stigma associated with behavioral health services in the military so this is an opportunity to talk to soldiers who might not otherwise open up."
Despite holding a variety of positions in the social work field, Lenz says the challenges are always the same. There are often a lot of needs and not as many resources. He is always looking to connect people with the best resources. Of course that also applies to himself and his coworkers. Lenz learned early on that if you don't take good care of yourself, you can be subject to burnout.
"As social workers we are really good at helping everyone else, but I think we always feel guilty when we try to help ourselves in any way," Lenz says. "I'm always trying to encourage my coworkers to take care of themselves and to do it without that guilt. We need that so that we can continue taking care of others."
Alison Morgado, LMSW
Working for the National Organization for Victim Assistance in Washington, DC, Alison Morgado says she feels as though she is in the hub of where "things are happening, wheels are turning, and progress is being made." The organization is the nation's oldest victim assistance program and focuses on training and credentialing all over the country in crisis response services. Though she loves DC, it wasn't easy for Morgado to leave New Orleans where she had been a senior victim/witness advocate for the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office, working tirelessly on managing cases and advocating for victims and witnesses of crime. Morgado's position was in major offense crimes—specifically, homicide and sexual assault.
Being an advocate for victims and witnesses of such high-stress cases takes a lot of guts—particularly in an area that has a high murder and sexual assault rate. The job already required 24-hour availability, but Morgado went above and beyond with her dedication. In a recent case, a woman was gang-raped and Morgado attended every hearing with the victim as well as the trial and the sentencing. After the trial, Morgado even assisted in raising money for the victim's living expenses as the trauma of the crime had made it impossible for her to work and support her children.
Morgado says that her own battles have helped her become the advocate for others that she is today. Morgado has been battling crippling endometriosis for 12 years. She says her health is an ongoing challenge with frequent pain and fatigue that she has realized may never go away. Fighting back the "hopelessness" that also comes with this disease, Morgado says that one day she decided she wasn't going to let it get the best of her. Three years of sobriety in a dedicated AA program coupled with a newfound passion to move forward helps Morgado to "practice what she preaches" with clients. It also makes her a role model in overcoming the odds.
"I work really hard to take the advice I give my own clients," Morgado says. "Some things are just out of your control and you have to let them go."
Morgado says that advocacy comes naturally to her. She can relate to struggling and fighting to overcome. And she also says she's a good listener, which is critical in this field. But her passion for helping people dates back to high school when Morgado regularly volunteered at the DC Rape Crisis Center.
"That really motivated me," Morgado says of her first social work type of experience. "I went on to study social work in school and always felt I was fulfilling a calling. I know it's not for everyone, but I love what I do."
Gail Palmer, LMSW
Since she was a child, Gail Palmer has always wanted to help people—to get them out of the situations they were in and give them the tools needed to raise themselves up. As a beloved professor of social work she has taught thousands of future social workers how to give those very tools to the people they are helping.
In her 27 years of teaching, Palmer's students have gone into various areas of the field and she says she is proud of each and every one of them. "I love my students," Palmer says. "They are some of the very best social workers in the community and beyond. Many have opened their own agencies or have gone on to work with amazing organizations."
Each year Palmer says she would tell her students that she "didn't have 120 students—she had one student times 120." She always wanted students to feel like individuals and to know that she didn't "play favorites." She wanted to be there for all of them. And with many students writing in to nominate Palmer, it's clear she achieved just that.
"It's humbling to get that kind of recognition from people you've taught," Palmer says. "The growth of students has always been what drove me in my career and I can say that I have learned a lot from them, too."
Currently retired from teaching, Palmer is now volunteering. But with a true passion for teaching, she says she misses the students. "I didn't have to 'go to work' a day in my life," Palmer says. "I loved teaching and I love my students."
Jama Shelton, LMSW, PhD
After coming out as a lesbian to her parents postcollege, Jama Shelton was given the keys to the car and told to leave. She drove from her small hometown in Mississippi to Houston and started working at a coffee shop and doing some theater work on the side. She also began volunteering with a LGBT youth group as a community arts programmer. Shelton would arrange for local artists to do workshops. But the program became much more than that. Shelton says, without fail, at least one young person would always disclose some personal and dramatic life story they'd been through and it didn't take long for her to feel as though she didn't have the skill set to truly navigate those situations.
"I felt irresponsible being confronted with these difficult stories and not having the clinical knowledge to handle them," Shelton says. "So that's when I decided to pursue a social work degree."
Shelton says her first internship was at a homeless shelter. She knew she wanted to work with LGBT youths and began implementing some arts-based programming with her background in theater. She says that's where the pieces came together. Shelton was ultimately hired at the Ali Forney Center where she worked largely with homeless LGBT youths. After a nine-year tenure there, Shelton met Gregory Lewis, executive director of the True Colors Fund, which was cofounded by Cyndi Lauper to raise awareness and bring an end to LGBT youth homelessness. When a position there opened up, Shelton says she could "not have written a better next step for herself." It fit exactly what she'd been doing.
Today, Shelton is engaged in the national movement toward ending LGBT homelessness. She also oversees the True Colors Fund's research agenda while teaching as an adjunct and often hosting social work interns. Shelton has also led workshops throughout the United States and is frequently invited to present. She has truly been a champion of change.
Reid Smithdeal, MSW, LCSW
Reid Smithdeal has spent his career advocating for individuals who have mental illness and substance abuse challenges. It's an area he has focused on since his schooling and one he is incredibly passionate about.
"Recovery-oriented services, particularly mental health, have always been my focus," Smithdeal says. "We are getting better with highlighting recovery-oriented services but there is still a long way to go. Even the fact that we use the terminology 'severe and persistent mental illness' creates the perception that recovery cannot happen—but research simply doesn't support that. Recovery can happen."
Smithdeal, who is intensely dedicated to keeping up with the latest research, knows this from his research, but he also knows it from personal experience. As someone who has previous diagnoses and has "been in the system," Smithdeal says he can say from firsthand experience that there are "better ways to do things."
And so Smithdeal focuses on system change and advocacy. While maintaining his busy career, Smithdeal also focuses on opening new programs for recovery and advocating to change practices and policies. He is also particularly proud of the supported employment IPS (individual placement and support) program he has worked on at Meridian, believing employment is, in and of itself, one possible pathway to recovery.
"This program is different in that it's truly client-centered," Smithdeal says. "We work to get them employed in jobs that anyone could get—not just jobs designated for those with disability. We offer unlimited long-term support. It's amazing to see someone who was told they 'couldn't work' become employed in careers they love. And research backs up the effectiveness of this model. In employment people are validated that they can be self-sufficient and part of a community. That can transform their life. Give them purpose. It's amazing to witness."
Lisa Tatulli, MSW
When it comes to being a hospital social worker, there is no such thing as a 9-to-5 workday. Lisa Tatulli says that when a family is in crisis you can't just tell them, "Sorry, my day is over." And so she stays. She stays and she gets families what they need before going home for the night. Time and time again that has meant some very late workdays but Tatulli says that a supportive husband at home makes it possible. And the patients keep her going.
"The patients are so inspiring," says Tatulli, who has held the hands of dying patients, comforted grieving families, and fought for patients' needs time and time again. "My goal is always to do anything that I can to help patients and their families get through an incredibly difficult time."
Not long ago Tatulli was working with a teen who had attempted suicide. After he was medically stabilized, the hospital wanted to transfer him to an inpatient psychiatric center. It was another late night but one that Tatulli says was so worth it. "I had exhibited my willingness to help at each step so why would I leave the family just because of the time on the clock?
"That's just what we do as social workers. I made sure it was taken care of and a bed was ready for him," Tatulli continues. "When the parent looked at me and whispered, 'Thank you so much,' you know you made a difference. Then you go home for the day."
Tatulli believes she's always had an inner calling to help people, and becoming a social worker has allowed her to do it on a professional level with the skills and knowledge base required to truly help. Working in a hospital setting, Tatulli has tackled some difficult cases and says that treating patients with dignity has always been her goal.
"Whether dealing with end-stage disease, aging patients, the homeless, or a Harvard graduate, I respect all patients' dignity," Tatulli says. "They're human beings and human beings are precious. From their first breath to their last breath, that individual is so important and I never forget that. As soon as I get a case, my goal is always, 'What can I do to help? What can make this situation easier?' And I'm ready to jump in."
— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.