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January/February 2011 Issue

10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 11 No. 1 P. 12

In anticipation of National Professional Social Work Month in March, we’re using this issue to excite and inspire you about the coming month that honors all social workers. We created the 10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers contest and asked readers to nominate their colleagues, coworkers, and mentors by writing essays about whom they believe should be recognized. We followed that up with personal phone interviews. With so many heartwarming stories of those dedicated to the field, it was hard to narrow it down, but we managed. Here are 10 social workers who deserve recognition for all they do. Thank you.

Neena Bixby, MSW, LCSW
Director of Huntington Senior Care Network at Huntington Hospital
Pasadena, CA

When she was young, Neena Bixby thought she wanted to be a doctor—that is until she learned how much math was involved in becoming one.

“I knew I was doomed and needed to find another helping profession,” she says, laughing. “And being a nurse just didn’t appeal to me, honestly because I didn’t think I could handle emptying the bedpans.”

But Bixby found her calling when she met a friend’s mother who was a social worker for a large hospital in Denver. “When I visited and saw what she did, I fell in love with the idea of helping [people] solve their problems,” she says. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Bixby spent her first years in the field working in adoption and foster care in New York City. “It was smack dab in the middle of when the abortion law went through,” she recalls. “That changed a lot of things.”

She ultimately wound up in a hospital setting, working at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, CA, for 34 years before her recent retirement. Bixby was the hospital’s first master’s degree-level social worker for medical, surgical oncology, and critical care services. She then helped develop the cardiac rehabilitation and oncology social work programs and was dedicated to integrating social work into the inpatient setting, says Gladys Gundrum, special projects coordinator at Huntington Senior Care Network, a department of Huntington Hospital. “As a sought-after field instructor for graduate social work students from the University of Southern California, she also mentored students to be the best they could be,” adds Gundrum.

Over the years, Bixby says she’s faced various challenges. Working with children, she says, can be difficult when people mistakenly believe social workers are welfare workers or are “out to take the kids away.” She says it’s important to make the effort to ensure clients know you’re on their side.

Challenges present themselves in the hospital setting as well, and Bixby has worked hard to make sure social workers are “part of the team.”

“In the old days, you couldn’t even see a patient without a doctor’s order, and a lot of doctors don’t have the time—or don’t want—to get involved,” Bixby says. “They want to fix the body and that’s all. Sometimes they really appreciate having a social worker that will help care for the patient in other ways. Other times they see a bleeding heart liberal and don’t understand why we’re bothering with a patient that they think can’t change. Part of the challenge is learning to work with different physicians and different patients and become a part of a team effort. It can be challenging but also interesting, and it was something I loved doing. I felt very blessed to be doing that job.”

Connie Bookman, MSW, LCSW
Executive Director of Pathways For Change
Pensacola, FL

What drew Connie Bookman to the field of social work? “I wanted to save the world,” she says matter-of-factly. “I meant that back when I started, and I still mean it today.”
Bookman has found a way to do just that—one person at a time. As the founder and director of Pathways For Change, an organization that provides education, prevention, and intervention for people who are substance abusers and/or live criminal lifestyles in the Pensacola, FL-area, she says she’s helping individuals become the “human beings they were meant to be.”

“It’s helping them understand what they’re meant to do,” she continues. “That kind of work is transformative—helping people understand their purpose in life.”

Bookman was offering private counseling when she identified the need for a long-term, intensive program that would address behavioral health issues faced by women in county jail, says Lauren Anzaldo, MSW, program manager at Pathways For Change. “She has built a broad-based partnership in order to provide holistic treatment to people who might otherwise not be able to receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems. Now that Connie and her team have created and are operating a sound residential program, she is branching out to address other community needs. Connie has united with area community leaders to open a family center that will be a one-stop shop for social services and recovery meetings.”

Though she’s accomplished a lot, Bookman says one thing that has been a recurring problem over the years is politics and working with people who don’t want to cooperate. But she has been able to forge ahead by collaborating with other nonprofits and agencies.

One thing that Bookman believes has impacted the social work profession the most over the years is the deterioration of relationships. “I also think that television has been a major impediment to a healthy society,” she adds. “We’re trying to give our clients and their families the opportunities to do something other than participate in mindless entertainment and boredom. That goes back to giving people purpose.”

Today, Bookman has the same drive she had when she started in the field and says she’d tell current social work students to know that they really can save the world.

“We’re already doing it,” she says. “We’re saving neighborhoods. I’d tell future social workers ‘Don’t give up. You can make it happen.’”

Timothy Chamberlain, MSW, LCSW
ICU Social Worker and Advanced Clinical Care Social Worker at Stanford Hospital & Clinics
Palo Alto, CA

Timothy Chamberlain says he’s always been drawn to human services and from a young age knew he wanted to help people. When he got on the social work track, the idea of working in a hospital setting fascinated him.

“The idea of doing ER [emergency room] work and working with trauma cases was always in the back of my head,” he says. “It intrigued me. The brevity of the encounters was interesting to me. You do really intense work and then you move on to a brand-new case.”

Chamberlain worked his way through various jobs in social work, ultimately winding up at Stanford Hospital in California where he’s been a social worker in the ICU for 10 years. He has been honored by the hospital on numerous occasions as an employee of the month as well as the recipient of other awards.

In a level 4 trauma center that specializes in areas such as neurosurgical, critical, and cardiovascular care, Chamberlain sees a wide variety of cases come. “That makes the job both interesting and challenging,” he says. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new appears.”

Working with the California Transplant Donor Network has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Chamberlain’s job. “Working with those families is just an incredible experience, and I’m a very strong advocate for organ donation,” he says.

But Chamberlain says being a social worker in the medical field can often be trying. He’s been challenged by a lack of resources and says there have been times when he felt that only a Band-Aid is going on a case that needed much more attention.

“People fall through the cracks,” he says. “Yesterday I got a call from the daughter of a patient who came in uninsured. We did such a great job fixing her up, but she won’t qualify for Medi-Cal now. She needs follow-up treatment but won’t be able to afford it. It can be very discouraging to basically go through life-saving treatment but then not be able to follow up with the necessary care. How is she going to get the medication she needs? That’s the perfect example of someone who falls through the cracks.”

Still, Chamberlain says he has hope. “I’m hopeful that with the things to come with healthcare changes that many of the issues we deal with will finally get resolved,” he says. “I’d love to see a time when people are no longer falling through the cracks and are getting the care they really need. It’s a travesty when something like that happens in our country.”

Kimberlie Flowers, MSW
Outreach Clinical Social Worker at Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc.
Lawrence, MA

Six years ago, Kimberlie Flowers’ life and career looked a lot different from how it looks today. That’s because she was working in corporate IT. But when her parents were both diagnosed with cancer and then in their early 60s passed away only a few years apart, it was a life-changing experience in many ways.

“For one, it was my first real exposure to sickness and dealing with hospitals and medical insurance,” says Flowers. “I realized how difficult it was to navigate those systems.
When my father was sick, I was his primary caregiver [Flowers’ mom had already passed], and navigating all of those systems was overwhelming. I’m not sure how my dad would have ever done it himself if I hadn’t been able to help. It’s enough to deal with the sickness, but you also have to handle everything that comes with it.”

That, combined with the fact her parents passed away at a young age, had a strong impact on Flowers. “It made me think, if I only have 20 years or so left myself, is this what I really want to do?” she says. “I decided it wasn’t. I put a lot of thought into what it was that I really wanted to do. At first I thought teaching. Then I realized some of the happiest times I had in life were spent with my grandmother, and it was literally as though I had a voice in my ear telling me I was supposed to work with elders. That’s when I started looking into social work programs.”

Flowers continued working full time while completing school. When she saw a job posting at Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. (ESMV) in Lawrence, MA, she applied. “In my cover letter, I pretty much admitted that this career change might sound crazy, but I really wanted to do this,” she remembers. She ended up with a job, enrolled in an MSW program, and ultimately worked her way up through the company’s ranks.
Flowers recently implemented an elder hoarding outreach program and has worked with Boston University on a research project studying the use of cognitive behavioral therapy and motivation interviewing with older adults who compulsively hoard.

“That’s been incredibly rewarding, and I have met some of the most amazing people through it,” she says. “People think that these individuals are just keeping junk, but there’s so much more to it. There are often many underlying layers, and I try to work through that and help give people the faith that the changes they want to make are doable. A lot of times it’s small changes that can make them feel more in control of their lives.”

In addition to working with the hoarding program, Flowers is a master trainer for the Recognize! Connect! suicide prevention project funded by the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, through which she’s trained more than 200 individuals to recognize the warning signs and risk factors for suicide.

“Due almost solely to Kim’s involvement, ESMV has instituted policies and procedures for staff who encounter elders potentially at risk for suicide and has intervened with those who have been identified as suicidal,” says Alison Theberge, LICSW, clinical director of ESMV and Flowers’ supervisor. “The work of Kimberlie Flowers has literally saved lives.”

Jill Denson, MSW
Director of Social Work at Milwaukee Health Services, Inc.
Milwaukee, WI

Jill Denson credits her grandmother for her choice to become a social worker. “Not that she was a social worker,” says Denson. “In fact, she didn’t even have the opportunity to finish basic schooling. But she was always very involved with her neighbors and her community. She was a single mother and working two or three jobs at times, yet she always made time for others. I got that sense of commitment to community from her.”

Currently the director of social work for Milwaukee Health Services, Inc. in Wisconsin, Denson actually created its much-needed social work department. “This was not an easy task,” says Alecka M. Patt, BSSW, who was Denson’s intern during her undergraduate placement. “But never wanting to give up on her patients and always wanting the best for them, she found a way to make it happen.”

Denson’s commitment runs deep, which makes her a wonderful social worker, but can also be an obstacle. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “I have a lot of passion and care about the people of my community. They look just like me, yet they’re struggling. You want to do everything you can for them, and that pressure can be overwhelming.”

Having a strong support system has helped Denson battle the stress that comes with her job. “You don’t want to bring home that stress and put it on friends and family,” she says. “But you also don’t want to keep it inside. It’s important to have a good support system built with other social workers and peers.”

That support has benefited Denson in many ways. “One day I had an 18-year-old pregnant woman in my office with no place to go,” she recalls. “After I’d called all the traditional places, I turned to calling other social workers. That was where I was able to get support and help.”

Denson recently held her first adjunct social work teaching position, stressing to her students the importance of being self-aware. “When you’re in the social work field, you’re taught a lot of things and need multiple levels of skills, yet it all starts with being aware of your own self,” she says. “Knowing your biases and how you feel will allow you to be more likely to correctly work with people. In the end it’s not about you and your mission and values; it’s about that person and their right to self-determination. I tell students it all starts with being self-aware.”

Pat Higgins, MSW
Social Work Director at Western State Hospital
Staunton, VA

Pat Higgins has dedicated her entire career to helping patients with serious mental illness. She started her social work career at Western State Hospital in Staunton, VA, in 1979 and has been there ever since. She’s currently the social work director.

While Higgins says social work was the best career choice she could have made, in college she found herself wavering between psychology and social work. The deciding factor was a professor who made a lasting impression. “I had been undeclared at the time, and I realized this was a great way to get into the field and really help people, especially at the bachelor’s level,” she says.

And helping is what Higgins has been doing ever since. In her position at the hospital, she has worked hard to build community relations and has established a risk management committee comprised of local community partners that helps difficult-to-place individuals deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

“The population of these acquittees has grown here in the last decade,” says Higgins. “They are very difficult individuals to help get reintegrated into the community, so I established this workgroup. We work through the tough issues that these folks face. This hospital is in a rural area, and our news cycles here aren’t like big cities. When one of these individuals gets released, it’s big news and that can be challenging for the person. We try to make their transition into society as easy as possible.”

Higgins has also established a regular case conference as an opportunity to discuss challenging situations at the hospital, and she’s become the leader of collaboration between the hospital’s social workers and community liaison staff. In addition to her work at the hospital, Higgins maintains a small caseload and a position teaching social work students. She says she tells students that social work “is the greatest profession ever.”

“I have never regretted [choosing social work] a day in my life,” Higgins continues. “The great thing about this career is that you learn so much from the people you serve. No two days are ever alike for me. If you like a lot of team work, becoming a social worker—especially in a psychiatric facility—is a great place to be. I work with some great leaders and clinicians and like to say that you’re only as good as the team you work with. And I really do love what I do.”

Ken Howard, MSW, LCSW
Private Practice
West Hollywood, CA

As a young gay man during the height of the AIDS crisis, Ken Howard says he couldn’t stand by and watch the tragedy of what was happening to his peers. He says that was his inspiration for a career that would ultimately lead him to social work.

“I liken it to a young man enlisting in World War II—the feeling that you have to do something about it,” he says.

Still, Howard wasn’t immediately drawn into social work. Initially he saw himself in a mental health field and earning a PhD. But not long after making this decision, he was diagnosed with AIDS.

“To be honest, I started feeling like I might not live long enough to complete a five-year PhD program, but I still wanted to do something to help others,” he recalls. “I didn’t know much about it but started looking into social work programs.”

Today Howard is a 20-year survivor of AIDS and says he’s focused on being a sort of “psychiatric social worker, working with his peers—gay men living with AIDS.” Over the years, he’s also done a lot of work with the homeless.

Howard is also a nine-year cancer survivor. His own battles and survival of major illness have given him a unique perspective with clients of his West Hollywood, CA, private practice.

“In an intervention with a client, I’m informed not only by theory but also by the experience of having gone through many of the same things,” he says. “I can draw upon my own experience. I also think it’s encouraging to patients. Someone who is newly diagnosed sees me, a 20-year survivor who has a career, a relationship, and dreams and goals. That gives them a reason for hope.”

In addition to his private practice, Howard volunteers as a community speaker and nonprofit organization clinical director. He puts together regular newsletters, podcasts, and blog posts centered on self-empowerment. “I like to say that I try to ‘survive and thrive’ living with HIV and help others do the same,” he says.

Howard says that one of the biggest obstacles is politics, not just for him, but for the profession in general. “I think social workers are empowered when programs are funded, but in a political climate that ties social workers’ hands, you can’t help much,” he says. “That can be frustrating.”

He tries to overcome lack of funding with his belief in turning to resources, something that most social workers emphasize. “I believe in the idea that for every challenge a client faces, there is a resource out there that can amend it,” he adds.

Ray Liles, MSW, LCSW, PhD
Professor and Clinician at California State University
San Bernardino, CA

For more than 30 years, Ray Liles has dedicated himself to the areas of mental health and children’s services. That interest was first sparked with a survey course in college as well as a personal experience Liles says he’ll never forget.

“I had to work my way through junior college and got a job as a ‘house parent’ at a home for children operated by a fraternal organization,” he says. “The superintendent there had his MSW, and one of the most transformative experiences was talking to him. He shared a box full of the journals Social Work, and I can clearly remember sitting there looking through all of them and thinking, ‘This is definitely what I want to do.’”

Since that “a-ha moment,” Liles has worked his way through the field, focusing on mental health and child welfare. Though they are both areas he is very passionate about, Liles says it can be a challenge to have two separate areas of expertise. “Jumping back and forth between those two areas is a challenge, as it’s important to stay current in both fields,” he admits. The answer for Liles has simply been working hard, as he always has, like the days when he worked his way through college.

Liles is a founding member and former coordinator of the Riverside Interagency Sexual Abuse Council, which is an interagency child sexual abuse treatment program launched in the mid-1970s.

“It was a program that treated families who had experienced incest,” explains Liles. “In their first year, they had 40 cases and people were amazed by that number. Back then, people believed this didn’t happen.”

But Liles’ group proved otherwise, making the agency a catalyst for future changes. Liles believes it was also the first interagency group in the country in a time when agencies operated mostly on their own. That served as a model for future work.

In addition, Liles is the first coordinator of the Children’s Network of San Bernardino County, another interagency group coordinating all children’s services on a countrywide basis. Liles has also taught courses at community college and conducted a variety of continuing education training opportunities for social workers on various social work practice subjects.

Today Liles says he’d tell current students that there will always be a need for social workers. “As times get worse, that need only increases,” he says. “Here in California, where the unemployment rate has hit 12%, most of our graduates still get jobs. In tough times, agencies still need to supply people to help those in need. The core values of social work—helping the vulnerable and the oppressed—are just what we have a need for today.”

Lead VASH Social Worker/Program Coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs
Grand Rapids, MI

Katie Perry knew she was destined for the social work field when she was only 17. “I had a mentor then who I met while volunteering at a kitchen to provide meals for people who are homeless,” says Perry. “I was doing it through my church, but she was doing it as part of her job. I asked her to tell me exactly what she did and what career path she took to get that position.”

Perry wanted to follow suit and got on track toward a career in social work. During college, she did an internship with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “I chose that because my father was an Air Force officer, and that allegiance to the military has infiltrated in our family,” she says. “I found I had a passion for veterans’ social work.”

Since that internship, Perry says she’s held various social work positions through the VA, but it’s working with those who are homeless that’s been her true calling. Perry has developed the Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program in her Grand Rapids, MI, community and carries a caseload of 35 veterans. She also volunteers her time working with the homeless community by serving on district committees. Perry also continues to work with her local church, providing outreach services to local missions.

Perry says in her time serving the needs of people who are homeless, one of the toughest challenges to overcome has been maintaining professional boundaries. “It’s something that can be easily tested as you want to do more and more to help,” she admits. “You hear heartbreaking stories and see families that are in such need. I try to focus on the personal strengths that each person brings in. Usually they have many of their own strengths and resources, and they just don’t always realize it.”

When asked what Perry, who is currently mentoring a social work intern, would tell other future social workers, she says it’s to “find your passion.”

“This isn’t a money-making career,” she continues. “Most people get involved because they believe in better improving humanity and services. So I feel it’s important to find the area you’re really passionate about. I’d tell students to start working in the career field they’re considering now.”

That’s the main message that Perry tries to get across to social work students when she does presentations at local colleges. She knows the importance from firsthand experience. “At first I thought I wanted to work with kids, but thank goodness I gave it a shot early on because I realized it’s not where I wanted to be,” she says. “Today I’m certain that working with the homeless is where I was meant to be.”

Richard Spratt, MSW
Independent Clinical Social Worker/Supervisor for the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department
Hennepin County, MN

The thought of becoming a social worker first entered Richard Spratt’s mind as a high school student when a sociology teacher sparked his interest. Following his high school years, he was drafted into the military, but that social work interest was rekindled when a fellow solider, who was taking social work correspondence classes, shared some of what he was learning.

When Spratt was discharged from the military, he enrolled in a social work program. Once again, he attributes credits a teacher to with igniting that flame. “I had a professor that became my mentor,” he recalls. “He talked about things like racial reconciliation before its real time and that got my interest. He also exposed me to a lot of different areas of social work and what I could do in the field.”

Spratt says the field of social work is incredibly gratifying but not without its challenges. “One area that was both challenging and rewarding was working on a specific project to increase the number of adoptions of African American children with special needs,” he says. Spratt says that ultimately having had success with those efforts was “incredibly rewarding.”

“In fact, I ended up getting to see some of those adopted children grow up,” he says. “I joined a church group where some of them belonged, and it was amazing to see them all grown up.”

Today Spratt is a supervisor for the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department in Minnesota. He also teaches at the School of Social Work at Augsburg College, believing in the importance of giving back by helping future members of the field.

He says he tells students it’s an exciting time for social work. “A lot of things are changing,” Spratt says. “There are a lot of opportunities out there. I look at our military and think about all the opportunities to work with veterans who are returning home or to work with their families—maybe helping children cope with the losses that occur. And I look at all the nonprofits and see opportunities there as well. Many are in a better position to be more flexible nowadays. It’s definitely an exciting time for students to become involved in the field.”

While he’s helped so many, Spratt says social work has helped him as well. He sees it as an opportunity to look inward and shares that message with his students, noting, “Social work is more about learning about yourself and how you can be better prepared to help others.”

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