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January/February 2012 Issue

10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 12 No. 1 P. 16

Since National Professional Social Work Month will be observed in March, we devote this space to some of the wonderful and committed social workers in the field. With the second annual “10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers” recognition, we asked you, our readers, to nominate your colleagues, coworkers, and mentors by writing essays about the people you believe should be recognized. So many of you deserve recognition, but 10 finalists were selected, and we are honored to share their stories with you here.

Stacey Krueger Barton, MSW, LCSW
Clinical Social Worker at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
Prior to working in the Washington University School of Medicine Movement Disorders Center, Stacey Krueger Barton spent almost 10 years working in hospice. She says that background prepared her for working with patients with Huntington’s disease, a progressive and incurable movement disorder that often strikes people in the prime of their life, destroying their ability to move, talk, and reason and eventually leading to their death. Barton was hand-picked for her current position by its former holder—someone who was told she could find her own replacement and knew Barton was the perfect fit.

“Once I learned more about the position, I knew she had pegged me well,” says Barton. “About 60% of my time is clinical, and the rest is doing research.”

Barton’s responsibilities include counseling patients, helping them and their families adjust to future changes related to Huntington’s disease, and heading up numerous research projects for the disease. Patients have a 50% chance of transferring the gene that causes Huntington’s disease to their offspring, so Barton says it’s quite common for her to work with more than one family member. But she says it’s a “family disease” whether the gene has been passed or not.

“The patient’s actions have a ripple effect on the whole family,” she explains. “The disease causes cognitive and psychiatric changes that are tough to deal with. For example, sometimes Huntington’s patients do things that cause them to get in trouble with law enforcement, and that’s an area where we have to intervene.”

While these difficult cases can take a toll on health professionals, Barton says her training helps her deal with the weight of her work. “I learned to measure my goals differently,” she explains. “My goal in hospice wasn’t that the patient would live—it was that they have a good death and that the family was prepared. Maybe I helped get them on Social Security or ensured the patient had good care in their final days.”

In addition to setting realistic goals, Barton says she’s also learned to create boundaries that she keeps in the forefront of her mind at all times. “That’s something else I learned in hospice,” she says. “I became good at letting go of the person I just left prior to walking into the next house. And at the end of the day, I have to let go of that last patient so I can be present for my own family. It can be challenging, and when I mentor students, I try to discuss this with them because I think letting go of patients is something social workers struggle with.

“As engaged as I may be with the patient, at the end of the day it’s their life, not mine,” she continues. “The truth is that I’m not living with what they’re going through. Perspective is one of the best job perks. I’m constantly inspired by my patients.”

Bill Wertman, MSW
CEO of the Alzheimer’s Project, Inc. and an adjunct instructor at Florida State University
Bill Wertman’s grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease while he was working on a degree in nutrition and dietetics. She came to live with him and his family. Wertman says that move had a huge impact on his career path.
“I saw how much of a struggle it was for my mom to provide a certain level of care for her,” he says. “I was working on my degree, and there just weren’t a lot of resources available in the rural county we lived in, so my mom was often on her own.” 

After finishing his degree, Wertman went back to school get a master’s degree in social work, a decision influenced by witnessing his mother’s struggles as his grandmother’s primary caregiver. In 2006, Wertman joined the staff of Alzheimer’s Project, Inc., an organization that provides much-needed respite for caregivers by placing volunteers in patients’ homes. The organization has also incorporated support groups, counseling, educational opportunities, and much more into the local communities.

And while Wertman loves this job, he says his true passion is teaching. He believes numerous social work programs are based heavily on a textbook methodology for teaching, but as an adjunct professor, he brings some real-world perspective into the classroom. “You can read a textbook example of how XYZ looks, but it’s nice to be able to talk about how XYZ goes in real life—it’s not always picture perfect,” he says. “Students appreciate that honesty, even though it can be scary at times.”

Wertman says he sees a future for social work students in which there are numerous possibilities. “The training social work students receive prepares them to do any number of functions once they graduate,” he says. “They can work in administration, be advocates across any practice level, create their own environments, or even partner with other social workers. They can even have their own practice. The most important message I want to convey to my students is to think outside of the box that has contained us for so many years. We’ve been taught to think that as social workers, we can only become case managers or earn X amount of dollars, but that’s not how I see it. I see a future that is much brighter than that for today’s students.”

Seth Berkowitz, LCSW, CCLS
Patient Services Manager for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Southern Florida Chapter
Seth Berkowitz was involved in the healthcare field prior to joining The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). He worked for Gilda’s Club South Florida running support groups and sold safety training to corporations and businesses for the American Red Cross. And prior to moving to Florida, he worked as a child life specialist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

But when a position became available at LLS for a full-time social worker, he knew it was his calling. “It’s such a great organization and a place I’d been working part time even before this full-time opportunity became available,” he says. “We are the frontline of support for newly diagnosed patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and other blood cancers.”

Berkowitz isn’t just a clock-in, clock-out kind of employee at LLS. He has taken on numerous leadership roles both locally and statewide within many social work organizations, including the National Association of Social Workers and the Florida Society of Oncology Social Workers. “I wanted to get more involved with those organizations because I feel like they’re making a true impact on society and moving things in the right direction,” he says. “You start to realize the impact you can have once you get more involved.”

While he’s remained involved in the healthcare field with his LLS work he says that, as a social worker, he enjoys working a bit outside the medical model. “I’ve worked with patients that have died, but I can at least walk away feeling that I know I did something to help with the process and make life better in some way for that patient and their family,” Berkowitz explains. “We are often able to make the patient’s life better or even helped them live even longer by providing interventions and support. That allows me to walk away from tough cases and still feel some sense of reward. Since the medical model is so focused on the patient outcome, I think it’s hard for the medical team to walk away from those cases where they lost a patient. We’re focused more on the journey of the patient and doing everything we can for them in terms of support.”

Christa Albert-Watson, BA, MSW, LCSW-BACS
School Social Worker Specialist for Recovery School District in New Orleans
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Christa Albert-Watson was among thousands who had to leave New Orleans. Upon returning, she found that the children’s psychiatric hospital she’d worked at had closed its doors. But she also found that there were many new opportunities where she could provide service—the greatest of which was in the school system.

“The biggest need was helping get kids back into school and also helping them adjust to all the changes that had taken place since Katrina,” says Albert-Watson. “In the beginning, a lot of my work had to do with the basics we take for granted—helping kids get clothes for school or even their birth certificates so they could enroll in school. Sometimes it was helping schedule their bus routes because the places they were living could change daily. Those early days were tough times, as everyone was starting all over again.”

Even today, Albert-Watson says there are daily struggles. Students are still returning to the area, having been away since Katrina, and Albert-Watson says many are shocked at the changes. So her job still has much to do with helping kids adjust. “There are still a lot of logistics to work out,” says Albert-Watson. “We also have a population of homeless kids whose needs we’re helping meet.”

It’s Albert-Watson’s positive attitude that helps her continue to make a difference in the lives of these children. She always looks for the bright side of a situation—even in trying times.

“I think that every day there’s at least one bright spot,” she says. “Even if it’s a day full of challenges, I always look for the moment that makes it a good day. And I’ve always found something, even if it’s just a tiny fleeting moment. I grab on to that, and it helps me get to a new day. The sign outside my door says, ‘Every day is a new beginning,’ and I really believe in that philosophy—starting fresh each and every day, no matter what happened in the past.”

Susan Signorino, MSW
Senior Living Counselor at Brooking Park in Chesterfield, MO
As a teenager, Susan Signorino realized she wanted to go into a helping profession. She was working as a candy striper at a local hospital and says she loved the atmosphere and enjoyed the sense of fulfillment from helping others. So she followed that path. In her first 17 years as a social worker, Signorino worked in home care and hospice through a rural hospital.

While Signorino interacted daily with patients at the hospital, she began to feel isolated because there weren’t many other master’s level-prepared social workers around. Seeking some support from and connection with her peers, Signorino launched an e-mail listserv to reach out to other social workers in the area. “Many organizations only have one social worker on staff, so this was a great way for all of us to communicate,” she says. “Then in the ‘90s, we went through a time when a lot of social workers lost their jobs and were in need of work, so the listserv became an opportunity to help one another by posting résumés and sharing job openings. From there, it has evolved.”

Four years ago, Signorino began working in the St. Louis area, and with the move to a larger community, the listserv truly blossomed. Today there are more than 700 social workers who use it, yet Signorino continues to manage it on her own and also keeps it free of charge despite the huge amount of time she invests in it. “This is never something I’ll charge for because it’s meant to be a community service to my fellow colleagues,” she says. “Connecting is something that benefits us both personally and professionally.”

Signorino has seen these benefits from the listserv herself. Since the recession, Signorino has been let go from three jobs in just three years because of issues such as downsized departments.

“Psychologically, it’s been devastating,” she admits. “But then I get an outpouring from other social workers who have shared their own stories of lost jobs or are sharing job opportunities with me, and it helps remind me what I love about this profession. Today I’m settled in a long-term care community doing marketing and admissions, and I feel that things have worked out great even though it’s been a roller coaster ride to get here. All along, the connection with other colleagues out there through this listserv has reminded me that I’m not alone.”

Leta Meerman, BSW, MS
Emergency Department Social Worker at Holmes Regional Trauma Center in Melbourne, FL
As an emergency department social worker at Holmes Regional Trauma Center, Leta Meerman provides crisis intervention for patients and their families during some of the most traumatic times in their life. She deals with trauma cases, homeless patients, child and elder abuse victims, and many other difficult scenarios, yet she comes to work every day ready to make a difference.      

“We deal with a lot of horrible things—gunshots, stabbings, drownings, murder attempts, domestic violence, abuse and, of course, any vehicle or motorcycle crashes,” says Meerman. “But even though it can be difficult, it’s also wonderful to be able to help someone at their worst moment in life. I’ve always had an interest in making a difference and being in a place where I can help people, and this is certainly one of those places.”

Meerman has even extended that helping hand in her free time, having volunteered to be on the board of directors at a local adoption agency. “There are so many people looking to adopt internationally, but there are a lot of kids here in our own community that need homes. That fact has driven me to help.” 

In fact, it even led Meerman to adopt a special needs child of her own. “A therapist I work with showed me a picture of this little girl and said she looked a lot like me and expressed that she needed a home,” says Meerman. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do personally because I believe every child needs a family. Today, she’s 11 and doing very well. I’ve also helped place at least 10 other special needs children into loving families.”       

Whether it’s working with families looking to adopt or in her current position in the emergency department, Meerman says her guiding philosophy has always been the old proverb that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

“That’s my approach to social work,” she says. “I aim to empower my patients to help themselves. That proverb reminds me that I need to ensure these patients and their families have all the resources they’ll need to be OK after they leave these horrible traumas and my service.”

Brandy Johnson, MSW, LCSW
Senior Oncology Social Worker for Cancer Care at Saint Clare’s in Denville, NJ
Brandy Johnson says she was always intrigued by cancer cases, so when she became a social worker, it was obvious that working with patients who have cancer was her calling. She later realized her grandmother, a 25-year breast cancer survivor, likely sparked the passion.

“She had breast cancer at a time when the treatment was a radical mastectomy and radiation that left you with burns all over,” recalls Johnson, who says she’s also been a cancer caregiver to her aunt. “But that never stopped her from doing anything. She was always dressed to the hilt and never let cancer get in the way of her life. Looking back at her strength has helped me go into this field and has helped me realize that cancer doesn’t have to be something to be scared of. It’s a part of life. The question is how to deal with it, and that’s where I want to help.”           

As an oncology social worker, Johnson helps ensure her patients and their families get the support and resources they need. As a tireless advocate, she’s also frequently involved in community events such as the Breast Cancer Walk and Survivor’s Day. “I find strength in participating in these additional community activities,” she says. “I may collapse at the end of the day from being tired, but I also really enjoy it.”

Additionally, Johnson sits on the board of the Operation Bling Foundation, which provides free jewelry to cancer patients. She says asking patients or their caregivers if they’ve been “blinged” is sometimes a great conversation starter, especially with a family that has been resistant to a social worker’s help. “Once they open up, they start talking about how they’ve been poked and prodded and just feel like a piece of meat,” Johnson says. “To get a piece of jewelry as a gift makes them feel human and loved.”

Johnson says she’d like to see the greater community become better educated on the value of social workers so that more conversations can be started. “We really need to strut our stuff and show the world that we’re not just people that take babies away,” she says. “I’d love to see the community educated on what we as social workers can do and how we are there to help.”

Mark Rogalsky, BASW, MSW
Unit Manager for Prevention Services at Mercy Behavioral Health, part of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System
“It all goes back to the summer of 1974,” says Mark Rogalsky, describing what led him to the field of social work and, more specifically, to working with kids.

Though only a kid himself at the time, during the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Centers overnight camp, he had a calling—literally. One of the program’s youth workers called Rogalsky after he returned to the city from camp and asked if Rogalsky wanted to help plan another weekend-at-camp event. “I think from that point on, I was hooked on group work with kids,” Rogalsky says.

In his first job out of graduate school, Rogalsky went to Houston, but he says it wasn’t long before he got a call for a position that brought him back to Pittsburgh. From there, he has held several different positions. But ultimately an opportunity came up to be a school-based therapist. The more “normal” business hours plus time working with kids appealed to Rogalsky, plus he was in an excellent position to make a huge impact on kids’ lives. But how he did it might be a surprise—it was through dance.

Rogalsky was instrumental in bringing “dancing classrooms” into some of Pittsburgh’s highest risk schools. Coordinating the program, he works within the schools, plans competitive events, and markets the program to the community. “I had seen Mad Hot Ballroom and Take the Lead, and I began to realize how wonderfully it fit in with the idea of prevention,” says Rogalsky. “It’s like The Karate Kid in the sense that there’s a bigger picture. Kids don’t realize that dance is keeping them from getting in trouble or giving them a place to connect. They think they’re just learning to dance.”

Rogalsky says Janice Pringle, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh, School of Pharmacy is in the process of working on hard data to determine the program’s impact in areas such as behavior and academics, but preliminary reports are “phenomenal.” Personally, he says participating in the dancing classrooms has been the greatest part of his time as a social worker. Rogalsky says it’s obvious just by watching the kids the positive impact the program has on their lives.

“I get to go from school to school and talk to the kids and watch them dance, and it’s been wonderful to see how excited they all are,” Rogalsky adds. “It’s amazing how much we can accomplish with school-based prevention. There are just some things kids will remember forever, and that’s pretty powerful. It’s the realization that you helped them look at things with a different perspective and made a positive impact on their lives in some way.”

Hanan K. Bilal, BSW
Social Service Coordinator for Gardenia Gardens Neighborhood Network Center at Gardenia Gardens Apartments, Inc. in Gainesville, FL
Hanan Bilal says her passion for “connecting people with resources and making a difference in the community” comes from growing up with activist parents. “They were concerned about education, poverty, and racial and social inequalities,” she says. “Growing up with parents that had such passion, it was automatic that I picked it up myself.”

While Bilal has traveled the world, she ultimately wound up back in the town she grew up in. “I went to school here. My daughter’s grandparents live here, and I just have background here,” she says. “It makes you want to do your best for the people that live here when it’s your own community.”            

But Bilal has truly gone above and beyond. She began working six years ago with an affordable housing community subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a social service coordinator. Though she was told it would eventually be a funded position, that hasn’t happened, so even though she took on a full-time job as a director of volunteers for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida, she has continued to provide her social work services to the housing community, often going door to door to see her clients. “I have found that a lot of times, people just don’t come to you, so if you want to be effective as a social worker, sometimes you have to go that extra mile,” she says.

With the little amount of spare time she has, Bilal also founded the group Muslims That Want to Marry as a resource that would help Muslims connect with one another. “I was raised in a Muslim family that was surrounded by Christians,” says Bilal. “Most of our family is Christian, and while I love and respect Christians, as a divorced woman, I’ve realized how hard it is to meet other Muslims. As a social worker, I naturally wanted to find a solution. While people told me I could make money off of the site the way a site like Match.com does, I felt that would defeat the purpose. I understand not everyone would be able to afford it, and I want this service to be available to anyone that needs it.”            

Just like Bilal was inspired by her own parents, she says she hopes to be an inspiration to her 14-year-old daughter. “In everything I do, I realize that my child is watching me, and that always reminds me to do the right thing,” she says. “I believe in volunteering and helping people, but it has to be more than a belief—you have to actually do something about it.”

Nancy Calhoun, LMSW
Retired Social Worker for SUNY Upstate Medical University, University Hospital in Syracuse, NY
Years ago, Nancy Calhoun became a single parent and needed to pursue a new career. Her next-door neighbor, who was the dean of Syracuse University’s School of Human Development, suggested pursuing an MSW because it could be the “key to multiple careers.”

Calhoun says that’s exactly what social work has been for her, and since obtaining her degree, she’s used it for service, teaching, applied research, advocacy, and counseling. Now retired, Calhoun provided decades of dedication to the social work field and says if it weren’t for her current battle against breast cancer, she’d be doing even more.

Though she’s held various positions, for the last 15 years, Calhoun worked at SUNY Upstate Medical University, providing care to older adults with dementia and supporting their caregivers. She says she’s become accustomed to looking at the big picture and always asking herself, “How can I make this happen?” She never gets discouraged and is always looking for solutions. In fact, Calhoun says that even today the “ideas are there, just not the energy to follow through,” as she fights cancer.

Along the way, Calhoun has taught and developed a gerontology curriculum and a course on aging. “I taught until I realized I was approaching the aging population myself,” she says while laughing. “I always saw myself as the link between the younger generation of up-and-coming social workers and the older generation, but once I realized I was part of the latter group, I decided that wasn’t the role I wanted. I was no longer the middle-aged person that could interpret for both groups.”
Calhoun says that even in retirement, she can’t stop herself from always looking for a solution. That’s the life-long social worker in her.

“There’s always a way through a problem. I’m an eternal optimist,” she says. “Along with that, I have the ability not to dwell on the things that don’t turn out so well. I can move on and accept the next challenge. That’s part of how I live my life. If it weren’t for my health situation, I’d be out there now. But I’ll never stop looking around and seeing opportunities to help.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA.