10 Dedicated & Deserving Social Workers
Each year Social Work Today asks its readers to nominate their colleagues for recognition for their outstanding service in the field. Many have nominated colleagues, coworkers, and mentors by describing how these individuals have inspired them—and in turn, how they inspire others. The top 10 finalists are here. We are honored to share their stories with you.
Beverly Able, BSW
With a sister who was born blind and an aunt who was mentally challenged who came to live with her when she was a child, Beverly Able has been exposed to social workers her entire life—and she knew it was her calling. Since becoming a social worker, she has worked in the mental health field, as a worker’s compensation case manager, and ultimately in long term care. The past 14 years of her career have been spent at The Glebe, a nonprofit retirement community where she is committed to resident advocacy. Able’s peers see her as a true “voice for residents,” always focused on ensuring their dignity and often assisting them in transitioning gracefully through major life changes that come with aging.
Able says that she is committed to ending the stigma associated with aging. Though aging often comes with “stumbling blocks,” Able says that she believes there is always a way over them. On a daily basis, Able is bridging the gap between administrative expectations, therapy goals, and nursing care—always ensuring that residents have a voice regarding their care and needs. She was also responsible for developing a memory support group to assist residents and their loved ones in coping with a diagnosis of dementia.
“With aging, individuals and their families must deal with issues and experiences that they’ve never faced before,” Able says. “It’s the education part of my job that I love best. I am helping people navigate a place in time that is entirely new to them—and potentially scary. Being there for them through it is often as rewarding to me as it is helpful to them.”
Leticia Cavazos, DSW, LMSW, LCDC
Having become pregnant as a teenager and stuck in an abusive relationship, Leticia (“Leti”) Cavazos says that it took some time to “find her bearings,” but she knew that she wanted to help others—and that lead her to pursue a degree in social work. While she was incredibly hesitant to work within the domestic violence space, Cavazos started out working with clients living with mental illness and experiencing homelessness but quickly learned that many of her clients had also experienced domestic violence and/or trauma at some point in their life. Ultimately, she found her way to The Gatehouse in Grapevine, a supportive community for women—whether single or with children—leaving a crisis such as abuse, poverty, homelessness, or other traumatic situations. Drawing upon her own experiences, Cavazos was instrumental in revamping the program using an evidence-based and data-driven design.
“I believe firmly there must be a reason behind everything that we do here,” Cavazos explains. “I also believe what W. Edwards said, that without data, you’re just another person with an opinion. So, collecting data on everything that we were doing became part of our mission—to make sure that we had research and data to back up our decisions.”
The program’s focus is now on empowering members to become fully self-supportive. She says that means helping them deal with their trauma but also teaching these women real-life skills in order to make sure that they can earn a living wage upon graduating and leaving the community.
“I think back to my own situation and how if someone had believed in me and supported me on my path, I could have found my way much easier,” Cavazos says. “As social workers, I think we should often take a step back and look at whether we are making a true impact on peoples’ lives or just putting a band-aid on the problem. We must be intentional in making sure that our impact is long lasting and that we are setting our clients up with the tools that they need to continue moving forward.”
Laura Guzzi, MSW, LCSW
Starting out in a career in speech pathology, Laura Guzzi found her way to social work on an interesting path. One day, while working with a preschooler on pronunciation goals, he climbed into her lap and asked whether they could “just talk.” He had just found out that day that his mom and dad were getting a divorce. It was through that experience—and others like it—that Guzzi recognized her true calling was in social work. Today, she has been a social worker for 28 years, 14 of which have been at St. Vincent Hospital. Her colleagues say that in her role, she goes above and beyond on a daily basis.
Guzzi heads the hospital’s mentoring team, created their perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, or PMAD, group, and leads infant massage classes and classes on essential oils, to name just some of her many efforts. She also volunteers and tutors for young children, attends missions’ trips, and leads a college group outside of work. Guzzi says that her church has been a big part of her family’s life and she participates in many of their projects including a three-year effort to develop a community center that could serve low-income and underserved populations. It has been through that effort that she has been involved in tutoring and more closely connecting with the local community.
In her time as a social worker, Guzzi has seen social work become more of an “integrative part of the patient care plan,” and she is hopeful that the future of social work in the health care setting will be headed even more in that direction.
Guzzi sums up her future vision: “Social work has the ability to make a tremendous impact on peoples’ lives, and if we can continue to integrate it into the health care model, I think we could see exciting changes in our future.”
Marrie Hibbard, MSW
Marrie Hibbard has worked in acute psychiatric settings or emergency departments (EDs) for a good part of 20 years. Today, at St. Mary’s Medical Center, Hibbard is a team leader and advocate for patients who come through the ED. As someone who has always had an interest in law and policy in general, Hibbard is committed to continually advancing policies to align with current and updated laws. She is also frequently engaging in community advocacy to support the best interest of clients.
“Too often in health care we fail to pay attention to whether the things that we do line up with policy and legislation, so I’ve always tried to make those connections,” Hibbard says. “It’s important that we are doing things that are both in the best interest of our patients and supporting the law. Aligning practice with policy has always been my focus, but with that also comes the need to advocate for changes when they’re needed—not just accepting something because it’s policy.”
Hibbard has also made it a goal to form collaborative relationships within the ED and, therefore, continue to elevate the role of the social worker as a respected clinician within the community. She foresees even greater collaborative care as the future of the profession.
“As social workers, we are an important voice in the patient’s care and should be a highly respected member of the team for our knowledge, advocacy, and professionalism,” she says. “I think we have to keep raising the bar in order to be respected for what we do.”
Kaitlin Puckett, MSSW, LMSW
With one brother living with a disability and another living with cancer, Kaitlin Puckett spent a lot of time in hospitals when she was growing up—an experience that undoubtedly shaped her career path. Upon earning her degree, she spent some time in long term care in a rehabilitative nursing home setting, but her dream job was to be a hospital social worker—a dream which she says came true faster than she ever imagined it would.
Now in the hospital setting, Puckett is “all in,” coming to work inspired and ready to make a difference every day. Puckett has contributed to the development of two clinical posters (related to decreasing readmissions and facilitating postacute provider engagement in the community) that were accepted for presentation at several conferences. Puckett also led a postacute provider community meeting that highlighted best practices for patient care. She has been instrumental in creating several advanced directive days in clinical settings to ensure that patients’ end-of-life wishes are known. Puckett says that her internship in palliative care was an inspiration for this work.
Puckett is a true advocate for her patients. When one patient was dealing with the ramifications of a flood, Puckett advocated to fulfill some vital needs. But she says this experience and others have also taught her that social workers’ hands are often tied by red tape. Sometimes, there’s only so much you can do—and as a young social worker, that’s something she hopes will change with the future.
“Although the bureaucracy is often there for safety measures, sometimes it limited what we can do,” she says. “I’d love to see a future in which we aren’t as limited by that red tape and can be more hands-on with patients’ needs.”
Amanda Quine, LCSW
Amanda Quine says that she always knew she wanted to work with kids and their families—she just didn’t know what that was called. Being from a small town in Ohio, Quine never heard of the social work profession, but some research revealed it was exactly where her heart was leading her. Since earning her degree, Quine has worked in foster care prevention and within a sex offender’s program but ultimately found that school social work was the perfect fit. To this role, Quine has applied her belief that “for every need there is a solution.”
While working as a school social worker in Maryland, Quine established relationships with 90 refugee students/parents from around 26 different countries, all with very different needs. Quine recalls that some of the students never had running water before and some had never worn shoes; her role in their adjustment was critical.
Upon moving to Arizona, Quine found that connecting needs with solutions continued to be vital. She has introduced a variety of programming including the Be Kind Program, Student of the Month, Playworks, Girls on the Run, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, the O Ambassadors Program, and Creative Play. She is also a trainer for Youth Mental Health First Aid and teaches staff and the community about mental health needs.
Quine says that her vision for the future of social work includes even more support for students as their lives become increasingly demanding and challenging due to a variety of external factors, many of which are related to the digital age.
“It takes a village to raise a child and there needs to be more support for students and their overall health and well-being,” Quine says. “As social workers, we can remain committed to the changing world by focusing on our core purpose of being proactive in finding solutions for problems as they arise—and not when it is too late.”
Joan Sass, LCSW
Joan Sass says that social work was a “calling,” and something she always knew she was destined to do. In her career, which spans three decades, she has worked in a wide variety of areas—for a suicide hotline, for child protective services, with people who have substance use disorders, in a psychiatric unit in a city hospital, and with people who have disabilities, to name just some. With a son who has a disability, that particular arena is near and dear to her heart and for almost six years, Sass was the assistant principal at a special education high school. Today, at Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, which provides social services to children, adults, and elders in need, Sass works with those experiencing behavioral health issues, complicated comorbidities, complex traumas, and some who are uninsured, undocumented, and have various cultural backgrounds. Sass says that she sees “no situation as unreachable.”
She continues, “Every day I ask myself, ‘How can I be a voice for clients that can’t speak for themselves?’ I am really driven by creating solutions and that has led me to start various programs over the years—for different agencies and across different modalities.
“I believe that there are always solutions—we sometimes just need to be creative in finding them,” Sass says.
Looking to the future of social work, Sass says that more affordable housing would make a tremendous impact, as it is currently one of the biggest challenges that she and other social workers in this arena face.
“We get these folks out of the state system and bring them into an intermediary facility but from there, where do they go?” she says. “As social workers, we must always be looking at the wraparound supports that we can provide people in need, and sometimes those issues are greater than us, but we must fight for them.”
Cheryl Steffen, LCSW
Now “beyond retirement age,” Cheryl Steffen calls her social work career “long, rich, and rewarding” and says that in her years in the field she’s performed almost “every brand of social work there is.” That has included everything from working in juvenile hall to adoption to mental health to various roles within the health care system.
Since becoming a hospital social worker, Steffen (now age 74) can reflect on her father’s sudden passing in the ICU when she was only 29 years old and how it caused her to recognize that the “languages spoken by doctors and nurses do not always translate easily to the patient.” That “missing link,” as she calls it, is what she always aims to fill when she’s working with patients and their families. She says that with the first tenet of social work being “meet the client where they’re at,” she feels she has been able to fulfill that with her own life experiences.
“I have had the opportunity to teach new graduates about death and dying—something that young people often haven’t experienced much of yet,” Steffen says. “I’m always drawing on my own experiences and sharing what language would have been helpful for me when I was going through my experience with my dad.”
Steffen says that she believes that social workers have the unique ability to be the “calm at the center of the storm,” and she has faced that many times in the hospital. When families are stressed and yelling at the doctor, Steffen has been able to come in and pull people together.
“That is true in any arena—health care, technology, or public policy,” Steffen says. “Social workers need to be in all of those areas as the calm at the center of the storm. In the future, I’d love to see even more social workers in even more areas bringing peace where there is otherwise chaos and conflict.”
Beth Wahler, MSW, PhD
For Beth Wahler, a career in social work was a “happy accident.” While pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology (and a minor in sociology), Wahler was in a placement where there was an LCSW—and she realized a social work career would be the perfect fit, combining a love for helping people with an acknowledgement of how social and environmental circumstances impact people. While pursuing a master’s in social work, Wahler worked in a women’s long-term substance use disorder treatment center and says she was strongly influenced by the work there. She then moved on to another organization focused on serving low-income individuals who faced barriers in overcoming substance use.
“I became incredibly passionate about people who faced barriers that keep them from moving forward in their life,” Wahler says. “I recognized the intersection of issues such as poverty, substance use disorders, and mental health and I wound up working in a research center focused on these very issues. This inspired me to go on for my PhD.”
Although Wahler did not anticipate a career in academia, that’s ultimately where she wound up, and she took her passion for helping people overcome barriers with her. She created Dynamic Diversity, a program that seeks to provide professional development opportunities to underrepresented student populations. Wahler says that even in academia, she continues to see her primary purpose as connecting people to resources. It is what also drives her vision for the future of social work.
“As we move into this era of higher inequality in which we find ourselves, it is my hope that social work will continue to adapt to the times in order to best meet vulnerable communities’ needs,” Wahler says. “That may mean incorporating technology into our interventions or otherwise adapting our skills, but at the end of the day, it still comes back to connecting people to resources.”
Sharon Walden, BSW
Sharon Walden is a great example of someone who doesn’t let challenges and adversity stand in her way. Having endured three ankle surgeries over a span of seven years, she has constant nerve pain and requires a knee scooter to get around. It’s fatiguing, but it hasn’t stopped Walden from showing up every day and persevering. Though the job can be discouraging—they’re currently battling a 40% no-show rate—Walden maintains a positive attitude and continues to forge ahead.
The majority of Walden’s clients are living with severe and persistent mental illness and she says getting them engaged is one of her biggest daily hurdles. But when she’s able to reach them, nothing motivates her more.
“One of my favorite things that a client once said to me was that she felt like she was the kite and I was just holding the string—and I was there if she needed something while she’s trying to navigate life,” Walden recalls. “I do have clients call me when in crisis or feeling like things are falling apart and I often recall that analogy.”
Like others in the health care setting, Walden admits that she often feels “locked down” by policies and regulation, including HIPAA, and learning to navigate within that red tape while still helping patients to the best of her ability can be a challenge. In the future, she would love to see the influence of electronic capabilities make a positive impact on how many patients social workers can reach.
“I think if we could start reaching more clients through a form of telehealth, that could be revolutionary,” Walden says. “By removing transportation barriers and making connections instantaneous, I think we could reduce or eliminate no-shows. We could continue to remain committed to the values and ethics of the social work profession, but adapt our practice to a time when electronic health communications help us reach even more in need of our services.”
— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA–based freelance writer.