No one who is a social worker will ever say that the job is easy. It’s often an unsung profession that requires workers to be on the front lines of some of the most horrendous, stressful situations in people’s lives. But it’s a profession that those who practice it love, as evidenced by six who returned to The University of Findlay on Friday, April 10.
They came from near and far at the request of social work professor Anthony Wilgus, who decided to celebrate his impending retirement with a symposium that focused on family in the context of social work practice. What resulted was a rare public gathering of successful alumni who had a lot to say about the things they’ve seen and done on the clock, and who, of course, had some words for their former professor too.
Here are some highlights:
- Wilgus is a tough, but inspiring professor. He has taught for 28 years, and many of his former students joked about his rigorous assignments, but all did not hesitate to be at his side when asked. Michelle “Kiesha” Williams Savage ’98, founder of the group homes “A Home For You” based in Maumee, Ohio, said when she was ready to throw in the towel as a student, he “talked to me and encouraged me. This education was the foundation that I built my life on,” she said. “There are many lives that you have touched,” she told Wilgus.
- There is hope amidst Haiti’s severe poverty. Chris Nungester ’00, and her husband, Hal, run the Haitian Interdenominational Shelter Home for Children based in Port au Prince. She said she has rocked in her arms a barely-breathing baby with cerebral palsy who had been abandoned in a church, taken in tent city survivors who had been raped, and housed former child slaves who did not know their own names. But she has also found homes for many Haitian orphans, helped families reunite and adopted some of her own. “Haiti was the place God had called us to be,” she said.
- The U.S. Social Security Administration’s bureaucracy is tedious, but not impenetrable. April (Lee) Adams ’02, a bilingual technical expert for the administration in Cleveland, Ohio, said she once helped connect a Yemeni family, whose members had multiple emotional and physical impairments, with the resources they needed to literally get back on their feet. Not long afterward, the daughter, who had still been crawling at age 7, was wearing shoes and dancing, she said. Careful questioning and assessment was the key. “I know without a doubt they would not have received those benefits if I hadn’t interviewed properly,” said Adams.
- Social workers often aren’t privy to outcomes. Fourteen years ago, Amanda (Blue) Limberty ’05 was one of the first to interview a young girl who had been sexually abused; her attacker eventually received multiple life sentences for what he had done to the girl and to others. “It was truly the worst case I’d ever encountered,” she said. A few weeks ago, Limberty attended an American Red Cross fundraiser at which the girl, now an adult, relayed her story. Limberty said she was able to talk with the victim, who remains emotionally damaged, but now has children of her own, works full-time and is planning to buy her first home.
- Physical circumstances often prevent people from getting the help they need. Edda (Wernecke) Sedon ’98 is a social services coordinator and social worker for Mercy Medical Center Palliative Care, Hospice and Home Care in Canton, Ohio, but she used to work at schools in inner city Cleveland. It was common for her to help students whose parents were in jail, who didn’t have custody of them and who had been displaced by deaths. The location of places that could assist them, she said, was often an integral factor, given that so many had no vehicle, or time, to get to them.
- Patient privacy laws can be frustrating for social workers too. Theresa Scherger ’92, a home health and palliative care social worker for Bridge Home Health & Hospice in Findlay, once handled a case where an 18-year-old came to the emergency room in labor after trying to self abort. Scherger and the hospital chaplain spent 18 hours holding the infant, which was less than 26 weeks old and did not survive. “The grandparents came in, but we couldn’t share a lot of information with them,” she said; the teen would not consent to it.
- Finding a way to tune out after work is vital to a social worker’s own mental health. The profession requires hours of active listening to others during times of immense fear, anger, grief and hardship. “We live in a world that doesn’t have very clear rules for dealing with a crisis,” said Limberty. “I have to set up my own boundaries. Once I leave for the day, I’ve left for the day. Running is my therapy.”
- Bowen Family Systems Theory is great, but sometimes you have to get creative in order to help. It’s not unheard of for abuse, even that which is sexual, to be multigenerational. Savage said many of her clients “have overcome things that people could never imagine.”
- Social workers have their own hardships to contend with too. Scherger entered UF’s social work program at age 25. She had been an accountant, a profession where “everything was black and white,” she said. Then her husband died, leaving her to raise their then-2-year-old on her own.
- The traditional family and its dynamics are changing in this country. Not only is the makeup different, but behavior is altering too. Because many now move far away from where they were raised, and because people are living longer, younger members are less able to provide physical support to loved ones who need it, said Scherger. Caregiving is hired out more often, or adults in need are refusing help, making it more challenging for county adult protective services to ensure their safety, she said.