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January/February 2014 Issue

10 Dedicated & Deserving Social Workers
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 14 No. 1 P. 14

Social workers bring real change to communities and tremendously impact people’s lives. Yet those efforts frequently go without the recognition they deserve.

Each year, Social Work Today provides a forum for our readers to nominate social workers who they believe deserve recognition for their dedication to the profession. We know that many of you merit more credit than you’re given, and it’s never an easy task to select only 10 finalists. We’re honored to share their stories with you here.

Ryan Lindsay, MSW, LCSW
Clinical Director and Cofounder of the St. Louis Center for Family Development
While some may say that coming from a privileged background can lead to a sense of entitlement, that wasn’t the case for Ryan Lindsay. Instead, he became acutely aware that others didn’t have access to the same opportunities he did. That realization drove him to pursue a career in one of the helping professions.

Additionally, growing up gay in the rural suburbs and experiencing rejection helped Lindsay become the compassionate social worker he is today. “I recognized that I was able to overcome a lot of things because of a high level of resiliency, but not everyone has that,” he says. “Not everyone has a supportive family behind them.”

When back in Missouri for work, Lindsay found that the state lagged in the quality and variety of mental health services available, particularly for the most vulnerable. “I see a big gap in being able to deliver extremely high-quality, evidence-based services to those who need it most,” he says. “There was an opportunity to serve those who really needed access to services, and that inspires me.” So Lindsay, along with Nancy D. Spargo, AM, LCSW, founded the St. Louis Center for Family Development to fill the gap. The center offers trauma-informed services and evidence-based treatments to underserved families and communities.

But he wanted to go beyond that effort so even more people could be helped. He now provides high-quality training options to providers who interact with clients on a larger scale, such as physicians, nurses, public health workers, and social welfare providers. “All of these individuals are very well-meaning but often haven’t had the opportunity to get exposure to different approaches, which could enhance the experience for the underserved,” he explains. “I also find that these professions experience a lot of burnout, and that’s often because they’re ill equipped to handle the intensity of the problems that exist in clients’ lives.”

Lindsay is helping provide the skill sets to keep these individuals going. He teaches graduate school classes and trains providers within the community both directly and through other organizations. “I’m really invested in helping these people stay in their helping professions,” he says. “The resources are lacking in the social work field as well as many other helping professions, and as a result, we lose really great people. I hope to change that.”

Michelle Villeneuve, LICSW
Social Worker and Therapist at Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont
In the 25-plus years that Michelle Villeneuve has been a social worker, she’s seen a lot of change. But many of the biggest changes have come recently.

In the nine years since she started at her current post, working with individuals with issues related to substance abuse and other mental health diagnoses, Villeneuve says popping pills has become the biggest problem area, as young people are becoming addicted to pain medications after surgery, for instance. She says one of the hardest parts of her job is witnessing relapse and seeing the same patients come back through the door.

Working with insurance companies also is a recurring challenge. But Villeneuve is a social worker dedicated to her patients, which includes advocating for their needs and, more importantly, their self-sufficiency. “I’ve had a lot of challenges in my own life, and I’ve learned I need to advocate for myself, which has helped me do a better job at teaching others to be their own advocates,” she says. “The people that come in for treatment often have poor self-esteem, and it’s so important that they learn to get their power back. I tell them, ‘You’re not going to get good treatment if you just let providers provide it for you. You have to be involved.’”

Among the challenges Villeneuve has faced is the death of her stepdaughter and granddaughter in a house fire four years ago, which devastated her. “I really questioned whether I could get back into the work,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to work with anyone who had a recent loss, particularly a child.”

But Villeneuve turned to the skills she had long been teaching her own patients. She sought counseling, went to a support group, and used coping techniques to once again be a functioning, happy person. “I know now what deep depression is, and I know what panic attacks feel like,” she says. “I know what my patients have been through.”

Villeneuve admits it’s still hard to deal with the family deaths, but she’s become stronger as a result. “People say that a lot, but it’s definitely true,” she says. “Going through difficult things does make you a stronger person.”

Rev. Col. Jodi Helbert, MSW, AACC, PhD
Social Work Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol
Although she began as an engineering major and spent more than a decade practicing civil engineering, Jodi Helbert never felt that she was fulfilling her true passion.

From the time she was a little girl, Helbert always had volunteered. In her childhood years, her family would adopt a highway or bring meals to those who were sick or homebound. She enjoyed helping others, and it stuck with her when someone once said, “You’re a natural-born social worker.”

More than 10 years after graduating with her engineering degree, Helbert went back to college and got the social work degree she believes she was meant to have.

Today, in addition to her teaching post at Virginia Intermont College, Helbert provides free addiction and recovery counseling through a local church. She says it’s a ministry that spoke to her from the start. “In southwest Virginia, there is a tremendous amount of addiction that has destroyed lives,” she says. “When we started the program, there were eight people and, in just one year, we have grown to 140. It’s been a blessing.”

Helbert also does grant writing within the community and helped save the social work program at Virginia Intermont. “The program was going under because the accreditation was not done,” she explains. “It was a program I felt very near and dear to and couldn’t see that happen.”

Within the community, Helbert has served on several boards and within various organizations over the years. Currently, she serves at the Crisis Center, which helps people who are suicidal or deeply depressed. “Because of my background in grant writing, I’ve been able to help find funding, which has been very fulfilling,” she says.

For her many efforts, Helbert was appointed Kentucky colonel by the state governor, honoring the extensive community outreach and civic services she has performed.

Catherine Harris Small, MsEdS, MSW
Guidance Counselor at Riversprings Middle School in Crawfordville, FL
Catherine Harris Small says her adoptive mother went to great lengths to teach Small and her brother (also adopted) to unconditionally accept others, inspiring Small’s desire to serve at a young age. When she was in middle school, she started as a candy striper at the local hospital, where she worked double shifts.

Though Small admits she sometimes felt awkward and like an outsider in her middle school years, she enjoyed a real sense of reward when volunteering, and she loved helping others. Her experiences ultimately were instrumental in her career as a middle school guidance counselor.

In addition to being a guidance counselor, Small also serves as the cheerleading coach at her school. Over time, she became concerned that students who were labeled as disabled often were marginalized and excluded from various events on campus. “There is a real social hierarchy that starts in middle school as students begin to identify who they are, and there are some kids that simply haven’t found where they fit,” she says. “But the people with disabilities often don’t fit anywhere; they want to, but they don’t know how.”

That led Small to develop Spirit Paws, a sister group to the cheerleading squad. When Small asked her cheerleaders to teach the new group some routines, she was pleasantly surprised by the positive reception. “They told me they didn’t realize what these other students were capable of,” she says. “They realized how similar they were to one another; they just communicated in different ways.”

With the community’s help, Small was able to ensure that the youths in Spirit Paws could go to a formal banquet held at the end of the season. Local businesses donated everything from the tux rentals to the flowers and the dresses.

While Small attended dress fittings for some of the Spirit Paws members, she snapped a photo of a severely autistic student. “It was a beautiful, serene photo with the young lady smiling,” Small says. “When I showed her mom later, she broke down and cried. I asked why, and she said, ‘My child has never smiled before.’ When you hear something like that, you know that you have made a change that child will remember.”

Today, a Spirit Paws squad has been established at another middle school, and Spirit Wings has been created at the high school. Small says the larger success is more than a night at a formal or a cheerleading event; it has been the ability to bring two groups together—one that may have been viewed as outsiders—and changing students’ perceptions. “I wanted to belong when I was in middle school, and I know that feeling,” she says. “But these students had a severe disadvantage to begin with. Using the power of peer pressure as a positive mechanism changed the perceptions of the entire population. These kids who never fit in anywhere are suddenly feeling accepted. The positive effects of that are far-reaching.”

Virginia Walther, LCSW
Associate Director of Social Work Services for Women and Children’s Health and Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine, Pediatrics, and Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Services at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York
Though she grew up with a naval officer father, leading to frequent moves around the United States, Virginia Walther spent much of her childhood in the South, where she had family members who were involved in the civil rights movement. “It was that exposure to inequities and issues of social injustice throughout the country that I think lead me to the field of social work,” she says. “In the South, it was with African Americans; in New York, it was the urban poor; and in southern California, it was the farm workers. There is social injustice everywhere you go.”

A second-year placement in a New Orleans hospital gave Walther a taste of working in the medical field and also inspired her. She loved the idea of working with a variety of people with different perspectives on problem solving, plus she felt like she had opportunities to help people on a daily basis. “Health has become such a social issue that even though I’ve wound up in the medical field, I feel like I’ve kept those roots,” she says. “Health care is a major issue of social inequity.”

Walther carries out numerous roles at Mount Sinai but says the most satisfying one is teaching at the medical school. She codirects a primary care medicine course required of all third-year medical students. “This allows me to teach a lot about behavioral medicine to medical students that will hopefully influence the way they practice,” she says. “It’s effective and efficient to be a doctor who understands behavioral medicine and what being patient-centered really means.”

Even with her many roles at Mount Sinai, Walther still finds time to see some clients on her own. Because of her background as an obstetrics social worker, she has a special interest in infertility and has worked hard to create more awareness and support for women who lost a pregnancy. She helped pave the road for health care professionals to better understand the bereavement process for these women and their families. “We began developing a bereavement program where women would have the opportunity to be presented the baby and even have photographs done,” she explains. “We’d host memorial services for children who were lost.”

Though advancements have been made, Walther says the medical field still presents many challenges. “Medicine has really become a business, and the ongoing challenge is how do you continue to humanize a landscape that looks at metrics more and more?” she says. “It can’t just be about the numbers; you need to keep the person in it. We continue to learn from our patients and families on how we can do it even better.”

Beatrice Hutcherson, MSW
Certified School Social Worker for Chicago Public Schools and Certified HIV Prevention and Education Instructor
As a child, Beatrice Hutcherson lacked support at home, but she had a friend living in a group home, and the social worker also took Hutcherson under her wing. “She would invite me over and mentor me,” she recalls of that early influence that encouraged her to become a social worker herself. “I always wanted to be just like her.”

Before getting into the school system, Hutcherson worked in child welfare and independent living programs as well as in the nonprofit sector. But as a school social worker, she believes that she’s helping to fill a gap for mental health services that is strongly needed within the school system. Her caseload is heavy: She services two schools and about 78 students and deals with issues that arise when there’s a traumatic event.

Hutcherson says she deals a lot with gang activity. “I was exposed to some of the same things—shootings and violence—and I didn’t have anyone there for me, so I’m dedicated to teaching these students the skills they need,” she says. “I love the kids. I want them to be able to have fun and function at school. School is a place for learning, but it’s also a place for developing social skills and making friends.”

It’s not uncommon for Hutcherson to continue her work at home just to keep up with the steady pace of her responsibilities, but she says the kids keep her going: “They’re my motivation. This isn’t about me; it’s about the students.”

Recently, Hutcherson helped cofacilitate an anger-coping curriculum with a small group of sixth graders. Pre- and posttest data showed an improvement in behavior and skill acquisition following the course. “We worked on a lot of skills, role playing, and goal setting,” she says. “The idea was to help them express themselves appropriately. Ultimately, we want the students to learn to make better choices.”

Beth Lindley, LCSW, MSW
Village of Skokie Human Services in Illinois
As a new college graduate, Beth Lindley was attracted to an activities coordinator position at a local nursing home. Her grandparents’ profound influence in her life—they lived next door to Lindley’s family and were actively involved in her childhood—drew her to the job. “When I took the job, I just fell in love with working with the elder population,” she says. “I enjoyed sitting and listening to people’s stories. My mentor at the time said that I should consider graduate work at some point. Ten years later, I went back.”

As a social worker, Lindley continued to engage in community work. Today, she works in a human services office that serves people across the life span continuum, though she still has a special place in her heart for the aging population. “We see younger families around issues of crisis and do work with at-risk youth,” Lindley says. “But my focus continues to be on gerontology and assisting people who are aging in place or need assistance during open enrollment for Medicare prescription drug coverage.”

Lindley’s mother inspired her to engage in service. “My mom had a great influence on me,” she says. “She taught me to be kind and respectful. For as long as I can remember, my mom was visiting people within the community, bringing them freshly baked bread or a casserole, and just sitting with them and listening. Now that’s what I do.”

Now as a mother herself, Lindley hopes to pass down this influence to the next generation. For instance, if she checks on a neighbor or shovels a driveway, she involves her kids. “There’s no greater compliment to me than when someone tells me my children are kind,” she says.

Gale Logan-Mullings, LMSW, CCM
Social Work Development Specialist with VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans in New York
Growing up, Gale Logan-Mullings thought she’d be a teacher one day. While she pursued a degree in psychology in college, social work eventually became her destined path. It was the opportunities to work in multiple fields and the potential to work with diverse populations that attracted her to the profession. “Since obtaining my master’s degree from NYU in 1998, I have worked in foster care, forensic, and medical social work with children and families, adults, and geriatric populations from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds,” she says.

As the social work development specialist for The Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Logan-Mullings assists other social workers. As a staff educator, she is responsible for providing ongoing support and instruction to staff, consulting with interdisciplinary teams on challenging cases, and evaluating and implementing workflows, policy, and compliance and quality initiatives. “Social workers do so much to help others and often neglect their own needs,” she says. “My work involves making sure the social workers have what they need from supervision in the form of a vent session or finding other resources. This way they are able to provide the best care possible to their clients.”

Recently, Logan-Mullings’ background in research, coupled with her keen eye, assisted her in correcting a flaw in the organization’s advanced directive reports. The correction resulted in a drastic improvement in the scorecard results for the organization’s work-driven indicator. “The results for the advanced directives scorecard indicator didn’t seem to accurately reflect the priority social workers placed on advanced care planning, leading me to analyze the data,” she explains. “A discussion about advanced care planning should take place with patients within 90 days of joining our managed long term care program. What I discovered was that all patients, regardless of when they joined, were being included in one sample size; there was no allowance for the 90-day period. Once the health economics team corrected the time frame for review, then the data showed accurately that we were consistently assisting patients with advanced care planning in a timely and effective manner. It was very rewarding to be able to have the numbers reflect the diligent efforts of the social work staff and acknowledge the work they do to help their patients every day.”

Carlton Munson, MSW, PhD
Professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore
Carlton Munson always felt a desire to teach, though he ended up joining the Coast Guard because he was uncertain whether he had the ability to teach. As fate would have it, the Coast Guard is where Munson learned he did possess the skills to be a teacher. “The Coast Guard is where I developed the most basic but important teaching skills,” says Munson, who spent 12 years in the guard and taught seamanship and port security work. “I liked the idea that the Coast Guard was a life-saving profession, and I liked the idea that teaching was a helping profession. I guess those skills were always part of who I was.”

Since his time in the guard, Munson has held various teaching posts and worked in private practice, teaching at all levels of social work education along the way. He estimates that he has taught nearly 10,000 students in his lifetime.

In addition to teaching, he has authored several texts, is the founding editor of the journal The Clinical Supervisor, and was the clinician in a precedent-setting Maryland Court of Appeals case that affirmed the right of licensed clinical social workers to perform DSM-IV-TR diagnosis and to testify as experts—a case that has had national implications for the field.

But Munson says one of his biggest concerns about social work is the “manualization” of the field. “Having everything come out of a manual and producing very set and rigid ways for how we do things is not sufficient,” he says. “Social work is losing its identity if we become individuals that only operate from a manual. There has to be a place for the social worker who is still willing to sit and listen to people and hear what they have to say. We often underestimate how powerful that can be in curing and in helping.” That’s one takeaway point Munson hopes his students will carry with them and apply in practice.

Munson says there is nothing he enjoys more than when students give him feedback on how applying information from the classroom has assisted them in real-life social work. “I wrote a book on DSM-IV and am updating it for DSM-5, so I’ll go out and do training sessions,” he says. “I enjoy it when a former student will find me at one of those trainings and tell me they used something they learned in class in their practice.”

Munson says he keeps this famous quote fresh in his mind as he teaches: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”

Lea Pipes, BCD, LCSW
Vice President of Community Services for the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hill, CA
Five years after earning her MSW, while working with adolescents and adults, Lea Pipes was presented with an opportunity to direct the social service department for the Motion Picture & Television Fund in 1981. At the time, the entertainment industry was reeling from a workforce strike, with many people experiencing financial and personal crises. The fund responded through social services with counseling, information, referrals, and emergency financial assistance.

Since that time, Pipes has worked her way up through the organization to her current position overseeing a team of more than 25 social work managers and support staff and reporting directly to the CEO and board of trustees.

In her position, Pipes oversees community services for adults and elders, including planning, developing, and administering social work and community-based programs.

Charitable services also are a key component of the mission. This mother of two has demonstrated that social workers can hold office in top management positions and make a difference in the lives of others. Pipes also is active in professional organizations and currently serves as a secretary for Leading Age California.

After her MSW, Pipes earned a certificate in gerontology from UCLA and has a special interest in the aging population. She is the 2008 Aging Services of California Meritorious Service Award recipient and the Motion Picture & Television Fund organization recipient of the Aging Services of California 2009 Community Services Award. She also has been a guest speaker at conferences throughout the country.

Looking back at her schooling, Pipes says her training and experience as a social worker continues to inform her work each day. “My encouragement to future social workers is to stay centered on our core social work values and never forget why you entered this wonderful profession,” she says. “Celebrate the service you and others provide every day and be courageous. Step into new opportunities, find your voice and passion, and power ahead, continuing to make a difference and improving the lives of others.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.