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January/February 2013 Issue

10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 1 P. 12

Each year Social Work Today asks its readers to nominate colleagues, coworkers, and mentors by writing essays about why these people should be included in its annual recognition of “10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers.” We were delighted by the essays submitted and are honored to select 10 individuals’ stories to share with readers. We know that many more of you deserve recognition for your tireless efforts, and each year it gets more difficult to select our 10 finalists. We are excited to share these 10 stories with you here.

Susan Auman, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Department of Human Services, Chicago
Many influences in Susan Auman’s early life pointed her in the direction of social work.

Auman grew up in what she describes as a “late family system with many unique needs.” She was born when her parents were in their 40s, and her father was a World War II veteran with PTSD. Auman had a brother with a debilitating chromosomal condition and a sister who was 20 years older. “Complexities in my family system set me up to be naturally using skills such as conflict resolution and brokering of resources,” Auman says. “Everyone said I was always looking to be a problem solver or a helper. These were skills that were just innate to me.”

In high school, Auman was a self-appointed school bus bully monitor, making sure other students weren’t targeted. While it seemed that she was destined to become a social worker, Auman started in the marketing track in college and initially pursued that career path. In the mid-1990s, after falling in love with an Italian man and moving to Rome, she became acquainted with a social worker who recognized her natural affinity for helping others. She went from helping the social worker run some groups to facilitating groups on her own. That ultimately put her on the path to a social work career, and Auman eventually returned to school for her MSW.

Auman currently works with children who are incarcerated, offering them opportunities for healing and making changes. She says she’s always had a fondness for youths and believes she can reach underserved children who may otherwise “fall through the cracks.”

“At 14, I went from being a pretty straight-laced kid to going off the deep end and dropping out of activities and hurting my grades,” Auman says. “I was one of those fall-through-the-cracks kids, yet my troubles went largely unnoticed by the adults around me. I always carry that around. I want to be an adult to kids who are struggling and need someone to be there for them.”

Auman, who also is a lecturer in the BSW program at a local university, recalls a special success story that helps keep her going on tough days. “I was at a gas station in Rockford, IL, when a young man came sprinting toward me from the other end of the station,” she recalls. “I was a little taken aback as he was running straight at me, yelling my name. As he approached, I realized it was a young man I had seen about a year and a half ago in the psychiatric unit. He told me I’d saved his life because I actually saw his soul. I had no idea. I told him, ‘I just held up a mirror to what was already there.’ I had been doing clinical assessments and then referring the client to the right help, so I usually didn’t know what ultimately happened with clients. Seeing a success story at the end of that process had a big impact on me.”

R. Jeremy Harrison, MSW
Social Worker/Clinical Coordinator, Wheeling Veterans Center, Wheeling, West Virginia
Prior to being deployed to Iraq, R. Jeremy Harrison was pursuing an MSW so that he could become a school counselor. At the time, he was a family-based mental health counselor.

After a year overseas, Harrison was a changed man. He returned to his counselor role, but his point of view had dramatically changed. Harrison recognized that he viewed his clients’ trials as minimal after what he’d seen in Iraq and, realizing he was no longer the best person for the job, he resigned.

When Harrison went to the Veterans Center to talk about some of his readjustment issues, he learned about a new program that would be hiring returning veterans as outreach coordinators. He got a job as a coordinator and returned to school to complete his MSW, graduating in 2007.

While using his social work skills to help other veterans, Harrison also has generously provided training to social workers and other professionals to help them understand the special circumstances and needs of veterans and their families. He wrote a novel loosely based on his experiences in Iraq. The Warrior Citizen: A Soldier’s Journey to Iraq and Back mirrored many of his experiences with the hope of helping others understand the veteran’s experience.

Working with veterans, Harrison realized there were many he couldn’t help, in particular veterans with housing needs. He also knew resources in his region were few and far between. Harrison and his wife decided to do something about it. They launched a nonprofit organization called Helping Heroes for veterans who are homeless or near-homeless. “We purchased a building that was in disarray and began working on transforming it,” he explains. “Most of the work was done by volunteers, a large majority of whom were vets.”

As a veteran with a service-connected disability and PTSD, Harrison has worked through many issues of his own, which hasn’t always made it easy to work with other vets who have similar stories that often “hit close to home.”

But it’s also been those stories that have inspired him. Harrison says he will always remember one particular World War II veteran with a disability and severe PTSD. He wore dark glasses and could never enter Harrison’s office without the lights being dimmed. He had no income and was living with his father. Though he’d been to other counselors and tried treatment through the VA, he told Harrison that nothing had helped.

Harrison began working with the man individually on a weekly basis and also referred him to group therapy. As a veteran with a disability himself, Harrison could walk with the WWII vet through the insurance process and the appropriate disability paperwork. Eventually, the veteran stopped wearing dark glasses, became sociable and talkative, and his disability was determined to be 100% service connected.

“One day he came to visit me in his new truck,” Harrison says. “Right away I could see he had changed. He handed me a key chain with a .22 shell and said that if it wasn’t for me, he was going to use it on himself. I have a lot of stories of inspiration like that that keep me going.”

Jessica L. Holderman, MH RRTP, MSW, LISW
Admissions Coordinator, Dayton VA Medical Center, Dayton, Ohio
Jessica L. Holderman was on a career path for journalism when an internship at a local news station taught her that she was better suited for a field where she’d work more often with people one on one. So she instead majored in psychology and picked up a minor in social work. “The classes I took for my minor inspired me, and I found a real connection there and realized it was the profession I wanted,” Holderman says. “Social work looks at the whole person from all angles, and that was something I understood.”

Since graduating from college, Holderman has worked in hospice as well as an inpatient physical rehabilitation unit. In her current position as an admissions coordinator within the VA system, she is known as the gatekeeper. She’s the front line staff for residential treatment, and every patient who seeks treatment has to go through her first.

“I see veterans at their most vulnerable who are often really struggling,” Holderman shares. “They come in for mental health treatment, substance abuse, dual diagnosis, posttraumatic stress disorder, and more. We also have a program for vets who are homeless and looking to get back to work or may be applying for disability and need a place to stay in the interim. When they come in I do a brief assessment and try to determine where they’re at and whether they meet the criteria for residential treatment.”

Holderman admits that her job can be challenging. Many times a veteran wants or needs immediate help and there could be some wait time, but she always finds resources. Sometimes that may mean connecting veterans with another local VA so they can get into treatment sooner. “That’s what I love about the VA,” Holderman says. “It offers so many avenues to opportunities and services.”

Though difficult cases can be stressful, Holderman says that’s why she got into social work in the first place. “I want to connect people to the services they need. Our veterans have served our country and made sacrifices for us, so serving them is something I’m proud to do. You don’t go into social work for money. You go into it because it’s something you feel passionate about.”

Elizabeth V. Keck, MSW, LGSW
Systems Care Coordinator, Owatonna Hospital, South Central Human Relations Center, Owatonna, Minnesota
In a rural area of Minnesota, addressing the complex needs of people with mental health challenges who are overutilizing the emergency department required a collaborative approach. Working together, the local hospital, Steele County social services division, and county-based purchasing health plan undertook the problem, creating an “in-reach” position that Elizabeth V. Keck fulfilled. Since taking on the role, Keck has overseen successful changes to the systems on a macrolevel as well as provided results for the individuals with whom she’s worked. It has been a good fit for Keck, who realized she had a heart for helping others as a college student.

“Back in 1992, I was a college student and very poor, so I had to work several jobs to support myself,” she remembers. “One of those jobs was delivering newspapers, and I delivered them to a long term care facility for people with developmental disabilities. When delivering one day, a staff member brought me inside, and I was greeted by a gentleman who came to know my name. We became friends, and I ended up applying for a job there. I found I really enjoyed working with people with disabilities, and that inspired me to change my degree from accounting to social work.”

In her current role, Keck has an office at the local hospital and works with patients who come through the emergency department. “I work with people to stabilize their mental health, physical health, and address any substance abuse issues,” she says. “I also work at the birth center with high-risk moms to make sure they’re doing the best they can with the parenting resources available.”

Keck admits that having several agencies involved with the program brings challenges of its own. There are many rules and regulations as well as more than one governing body to which she must answer, but she says the program has been so successful there’s increasing interest from other agencies and facilities wanting to implement a similar program.

“I’ve spoken to Allina Hospitals as well as the Mayo Clinic Health Systems about what has been successful and what challenges we’ve faced,” Keck says. “There’s been a lot of interest not only from the hospitals but from community health centers. Everyone wants to know how they can meet these patients’ needs from a human services perspective.”

Bumping into old clients has been an inspiration for Keck since taking on this role. “When clients come back to see you or you run into them somewhere and they tell you how meaningful your program was, you start to realize you really are making a difference,” she says. “Unless you see these patients later on and hear how much better they’re doing, you always wonder. But when you get to see them again, you know you did what’s right.”

Cynthia Gail Langley, LCSW, MSW
Clinical Supervisor, Drew Child Development, Los Angeles
Growing up with a mother who worked as a secretary in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, Cynthia Gail Langley knew only that social workers dealt in public welfare. “When I was a kid and went to work with her, I’d see that the welfare workers had massive cases on their desks,” she remembers. “This was before computers, so the files were just stacked sky high. I was fascinated that they worked with so many people but were overwhelmed by those files. I always wanted to be a treatment provider.”

To do this, Langley assumed she needed a degree in psychology and began pursuing one at Pepperdine University. But she was discouraged by the amount of schooling required to earn her PhD and was eager to start working in the treatment field. That’s when a professor piqued Langley’s interest in social work and the fact that there were many related career options. “I was taken aback and also excited,” she recalls. “I found out from my professor which schools had MSW programs and immediately applied. In 1979, I graduated with my MSW from USC [the University of Southern California].”

Langley started in medical social work, working in emergency departments and other hospital settings. Ultimately, she got involved in mental health. She currently supervises five marriage and family therapy interns and a master’s-level social worker. She also maintains a private practice and does additional work in group homes, foster homes, hospitals, and administrative areas.

A couple years ago, Langley had an experience at a hospital that sticks with her. A gentleman was slowly losing his battle with respiratory problems. “Over a six-month period I began working with the son and his family, including his wife and three children,” Langley says. “When the father was moved to the ICU, the son became overwhelmed and shared that his entire family was also struggling with it. I told him to bring them to the hospital, and I did a series of therapeutic sessions with the whole family, including some special work with the kids.”

As the man’s condition worsened, it was obvious his time was near. Though this particular hospital did not allow children to visit patients in the ICU, Langley advocated for permission to have the three children see their grandfather one last time. Each donning gloves, a gown, and a mask, the children had some incredibly heartwarming time to reconnect with their grandfather. About a week later, he passed.

“Though the son was devastated, we continued to do some more therapy, and it was obvious that made an impact,” Langley says. “They invited me to the funeral and I attended. I spent some special time with each of the children. I saw it as an outstanding memory of how a social worker can really be integrated into a family’s life at a critical time of need.”

Eric Mayfield, MSSW
Nephrology Social Worker, DaVita Dialysis, Tennessee
In college, Eric Mayfield loved his psychology classes, but he knew he didn’t want to spend eight years working on his PhD. So he was grateful when an advisor steered him toward social work. It had many of the elements of psychology that he loved and gave him the opportunity to help others. Since entering the field of social work, Mayfield has worked in several different areas; he loves the versatility of his career.

As a nephrology social worker, Mayfield sees patients for chair-side counseling. He provides education and support at a time when patients are experiencing a major life change. “They don’t get a lot of education prior to coming to dialysis, so we are generally trying to educate them and give them some peace of mind,” he explains. “Dialysis is not a death sentence, but a large majority come in thinking it is. I spend about an hour and a half with new patients talking about their options. We provide family education and support and help tackle insurance issues. The job is more problem-solving oriented than any other social work job I’ve had. It’s very demanding but also very rewarding.”

Mayfield divides his time among three clinics and often has long hours, but the patients make it worthwhile. And it’s not always easy when patients pass away, but Mayfield has witnessed the triumph of a patient who gets a long-awaited kidney transplant. “The joy that comes in seeing a long-time dialysis patient get the opportunity to have their life back is phenomenal,” Mayfield says.

He also enjoys speaking with social work students, having done so in several college classes. And every year Mayfield mentors an intern from a local university. “The students always ask, ‘What have you done?’ and they’re very interested in hearing about the different opportunities in the field,” Mayfield says. “I tell them that I got into dialysis after 12 years of working in other areas of social work, and I would change nothing about any of those experiences. I’ve enjoyed them all, and they’ve taught me different things. While I never pictured myself in medical social work, I thoroughly enjoy this as well. I’ve been lucky to have a well-rounded career, and I encourage today’s students to take advantage of all the opportunities social work brings to the table.”

Denise McBain, LCSW, MSW
Medical Social Worker, SSM Health Care, DePaul Health Center, St. Louis
As a medical social worker, Denise McBain habitually goes above and beyond what is expected of her. She has led an initiative to standardize documentation across the St. Louis SSM network, assisted in creating documentation defining unwritten communication expectations within the case management and social work departments, and developed checklists for new employees and as a guide to practicum students.

But of all these accomplishments, her efforts to establish an Optimizing Medical Management for Ventilator Dependent Patients workgroup stands out. The work is geared toward supporting families of patients on ventilators, considering resources are limited for long-term ventilator patients.

“I’m really excited about this group,” McBain says. “I see a lot of opportunities for us to provide better care and continuity for these patients. Patients on a long-term ventilator, whether it is because of a brain injury, stroke, or another reason, don’t currently have a lot of options. We don’t have nursing homes for these patients. So we’re trying to provide the best medical care, along with continuity of care, while setting expectations for the families and patients. We’re trying to connect them with resources and programs, and to provide education and consistent messaging. This means bringing together everyone from the respiratory therapists to palliative care, nursing, ethics committees, and more. We no longer want to scramble for resources when an individual comes along who is ventilator dependent. We want to have a plan.”

McBain accepts that the medical field is constantly changing, and that “keeping up” requires dedication and a lot of hard work. While she has been in the field for 18 years, she knows that what she learned a year ago may not be relevant today. “You have to constantly research and find the best options for your individual clients,” she says. “It’s a constant learning experience that requires keeping up with the latest information and resources at all times. But it’s the stories of my patients that inspire me and help me carry on. Helping people at critical points in their life keeps me going.”

Suzanne Pritzker, PhD
Assistant Professor of Social Work, University of Houston, Texas
Suzanne Pritzker was an undergraduate history major when she became interested in how policy can be more inclusive and representative of what is really happening with individuals and communities.

While working in a legislative session with the Senate Finance Committee in Virginia, Pritzker met a social worker, her first real eye opener to the field. When a professor showed her the possibilities of the role of macrolevel social work—the idea of empowerment and advocacy—she was sold on the profession. “It was an opportunity to try to change policy from the outside,” she says. “That fascinated me.”

Pritzker has focused on achieving a greater understanding of how communities and individuals can shape policy and how policy on different levels impacts practice. One of her concerns in the field is that so many social service agencies are no longer being run by social workers. “I think that’s one of the important challenges the field of social work faces today,” she says. “Individuals who are not social workers are making the decisions for us. I think we all need to be concerned about that.”

As a professor teaching policy to her social work students, Pritzker is passionate. In particular, she’s passionate about how social workers can make changes in public policy and their surrounding communities. Her students witness that Pritzker practices what she preaches by participating in projects and community efforts that benefit everyone.

“I try to help students process the concepts we discuss in class and make connections not only within the classroom but in the real world,” Pritzker says. “Connecting students to the community and helping them see the power of advocacy are two of my goals. As social workers, we have the opportunity to really impact the system, to make critical changes. I think that’s one of the most crucial aspects of the field of social work and a fact that students take with them as they go out into the world.”

Laurie Ray, MSW, CMSW, C-ASWCM
Geriatric Care Manager and Executive Director, COPE Eldercare, Cary, North Carolina
For Laurie Ray, social work was a career change. As a pet therapy volunteer, she wanted to find a way to make that work more mainstream. She decided social work was the answer and returned to school for her MSW.

Initially Ray worked in hospice using pet therapy as part of her end-of-life care work and in other settings. She eventually transitioned into the field of aging and worked at a large continuing care retirement community. “It was there that I saw how the affluent were able to retire and have all of their needs met,” Ray says. “I decided that I liked being a geriatric care manager but wanted to do that work in the public sector and started my own business.”

When Ray was assigned to an elder couple who needed her help but couldn’t afford it, it was the a-ha moment that shaped the rest of her career path. “I drove away from that couple realizing that the people out there who couldn’t afford my help were the ones that needed it the most,” she says. “So I dissolved my for-profit practice and formed COPE Eldercare. I knew I just couldn’t say good luck to those that couldn’t afford me and be on my way. I had to find ways to get elders better access to resources, regardless of their income.”

COPE Eldercare was established to bring compassionate geriatric care management services to older adults and their families. Ray says it has been eye-opening to see who needs help. She frequently works with individuals with dementia and is amazed to see an increasing number of clients who are trying to manage this diagnosis at a young age. “We do a support group for individuals with frontal temporal dementia and find that young adults who have been diagnosed is where our practice is growing,” she says.

While pet therapy isn’t a primary focus for COPE, Ray still does it on the weekends. It was, after all, her introduction to the field of social work, witnessing how one person can have a tremendous impact on others’ lives.

Ray urges today’s social work students to remain open minded. “We tend to go into the field with a specific direction in mind—I know I did,” she says. “I can remember sitting in class saying, ‘I know I don’t want to go into aging.’ And yet here I am. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Joanne Sizemore, MSW
Social Worker, Department of Public Advocacy, Kentucky
Joanne Sizemore admits she didn’t grow up thinking she’d be a social worker. She envisioned following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a teacher. But a day of substitute teaching while in college convinced her it wasn’t the right career path. Still, having grown up watching a mother who taught in one-room schools for many years tremendously impacted Sizemore, believing this led her into social work.

“My mom started her teaching career in a one-room school and became a Head Start teacher when that program came out,” Sizemore recalls. “Teachers were required to make home visits, so I’d come along when she went to visit the family. That was an eye-opening experience for a 7-year-old, and one that I believe impacted my career choice. My mom gave me the first experience with a social worker type of person.”

Sizemore currently works with the Department of Public Advocacy, which requires devoting her time to clients facing criminal sentences and often struggling to meet basic needs. She works with attorneys and judges through the court system, which is quite different from the previous 17 years she spent in community mental health as a program director for an in-home counseling program. She supervised a clinical staff and worked with high-risk families and now brings that experience to her current public advocacy work.

“Some of the officials that we work with through the court system have very negative ideas or connotations about people with addictions,” she says. “They don’t understand that addiction is a disease, and that people with addictions are no different than your child, your brother, or your niece. So overcoming those prejudices has been a challenge and a goal.”

In her position, Sizemore has utilized a variety of skills, including assessment, resource location, and counseling. She also has briefly worked with clients’ family members. “It’s been an opportunity to use skills I’ve gathered from other jobs and experiences,” she says.

Like her previous job, it means dealing with some tough cases. But Sizemore says the feeling she gets when she’s positively impacted someone’s life keeps her energized.

“Even if they don’t achieve recovery the first time around, we know we’ve planted a seed,” she says. “As a social worker, you have to accept that not every client is ready to make a change at the time you enter their life. But sometimes you do get to work with the person who’s ready to change, and that’s a pretty amazing transformation to witness.”

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