I’m a social worker, mom, freelance writer, and spy”not always in that order.

Spy was at the top of the list recently as I eavesdropped on my 10-year-old daughter’s phone conversation after she’d been admonished for taking an impromptu bike ride to the other side of Oak Park.

“And another thing,” I heard her complain to her friend as I stood next to the stairs listening. “I’m never going to be a social worker. They just sit at desks all day and get saggy butts.”

Sigh. Another misinformed citizen, unaware of the true power of social work in everyday life. And she has two parents in the profession.

I do indeed sit at a desk or in meetings much of the day. But in my role as training coordinator at an inner-city early childhood program, I also write policy, track data and communicate about staff training activities. I balance policy mandates, funding constraints, program schedules, staff concerns and agency priorities to effectively manage the training plan.

Social workers are truly a versatile lot. We connect all available resources in a given system, whether it’s a family or an organization, to address problems. We even have our own “month” (March”surprise!). This year’s slogan is “Help Starts Here,” which is part of a national campaign to increase the public’s understanding of the profession.

Oak Park and River Forest are home to hundreds of social workers. The profiles below will definitely increase your unde rstanding of social work and its impact in our community. Now if we can just solve that “saggy butt” image problem.

Dominican takes a world view

When Mark Rodgers was a college student he spent six months in England as part of his bachelor’s degree in social work. He lived with a British family, and researched the British prison system at Oxford University.

“That was the root of it,” says Rodgers. “After that I felt international social work should be part of social work education.”

Rodgers went on to earn his master’s in social work (MSW) and doctorate (DSW). While directing the graduate school of social work at Monmouth University, Rodgers created the first international social work concentration in America.

Rodgers has done pioneering work with colleagues in Latvia to develop social work as a profession in that former Soviet nation. Working with the U.S. Embassy in Latvia he has also organized a conference and training program to address the issue of trafficking in persons for prostitution and other illegal practices.

When he became dean of the graduate school of social work at Dominican last autumn, Rodgers brought his international perspective to the program.

“In Oak Park and River Forest we can’t assume the world doesn’t touch us,” Rodgers says.

The international specialty Rodgers brings to the school joins family-centered practice as a distinguishing feature of Dominican’s program. Readings, texts and teaching examples from abroad, foreign lecturers and eventually a more international faculty are all ways Rodgers plans to build the school’s global focus.

“We hope to move as early as next academic year for internships overseas,” says Rodgers. His program at Monmouth placed students in Latvia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Switzerland, Canada and Ghana.

To earn an MSW degree at Dominican students must complete 64 semester credit hours of coursework, and log a total of 1,052 hours of fieldwork experience prior to graduation.

“Professionals never stop,” explains Rodgers. “To be viable and alive we must keep pace with training. Social work is evolving, and changing. As developing professionals we must incorporate new technology, partners, and in my experiences, a world view.”

It takes a township

“It’s the line that connects the dots,” Lydia Tuck says of the social work profession. “We’re everywhere.”

Tuck, executive director of the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township, knows the power of connection at the community level. The board runs the Unified Services Plan (USP) program, which serves adult Oak Park and River Forest residents with chronic mental illness.

The USP net of services includes individual assessment of a person’s ability to function on his own, planning for and monitoring delivery of psychiatric and medical care, vocational training, and disability and medical benefits.

Tuck oversees a staff of eight people, based at the township offices on Oak Park Avenue. “This position allows me to destigmatize mental illness, to show we’re ‘walking the walk.’ We want to be sure Oak Park and River Forest residents can be proud of our services,” she says.

Funded by grants from the Mental Health Board, the Mental Health Committee of River Forest, and the Illinois Department of Human Services, the USP program has been around since 1989.

A Michigan native, Tuck arrived at the Mental Health Board in 2003. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” Tuck says. “I love contributing to the community. That’s a central theme to my career.”

Tuck always knew she wanted to work in a helping profession. After graduating from college with a degree in psychology, she worked at a county hospital with psychiatric patients. She eventually moved into the substance abuse field where she began developing programs for women. This sparked her interest in administration, which became her concentration in graduate school.

Tuck’s background both as a counselor and an administrator gives her a unique perspective. “I enjoy being an administrator. It allows me to be a social worker on a different level, ” she says. “An MSW brings so much”you learn human behavior, systems, budgeting, finance. MSWs bring value added.”

On call at Hephzibah

“It was an organization I wanted to be part of,” says Danielle Driscoll, group homes social work coordinator at Hephzibah Children’s Association. Driscoll works in Hephzibah’s two group homes for abused and neglected children. She oversees a social work component that employs four MSWs and provides internships for several social work students in graduate school.

“I love working in the group homes. It’s a unique setting. You really get to know the kids, and your co-workers,” Driscoll explains. “We work in the space where the children live. You can be there for them.”

The emotional toll of working with severely abused or neglected children is heavy, even for experienced staff. Due to the degree of trauma the children in the group homes have experienced, staff must be highly trained and supported in their work.

As a supervisor, Driscoll’s job is to provide this support, through supervision meetings, day-to-day contact and professional development. Group home social workers are on 24-hour call for the children on their caseload. “There’s always someone available to respond to a psychiatric emergency of a child,” Driscoll says.

To help balance the demands of their intense work, social work staff can flex their hours”a common benefit in the field, since paid overtime or high wages are not typical in most settings.

“Their job is to piece it all together, to get all the people together to make a decision,” Driscoll says of her staff’s role in the agency.

Another area where Hephzibah uses social workers is in its childcare program. Assistant Day Care Director Amy Richardt supervises a full-time social worker, Jamie Kurucar, and a social work intern.

“I spend a considerable amount of time working with our great day care staff, helping them identify new ways to work better with the children and improve the quality of our program,” Richardt says. “By supporting working parents and strengthening families, we’re truly strengthening our community.”

Kurucar shares Richardt’s enthusiasm for their work. “There are so many resources out there and social workers can be great managers of these resources. I think that social workers get a bad reputation as being the ‘people who take children away from their home.’ But this is such a minute part of social work,” Kurucar comments.

Two decades at Lincoln School

“If this was ever just a job to me that would really frustrate me. It’s much more,” says Patrice Keleher, social worker at Lincoln School in Oak Park.

Keleher came to Lincoln 21 years ago, just out of graduate school but with seven years work experience in a halfway house and psychiatric hospital.

Her primary role is as a child advocate, to support children’s success in the school environment. Her specific activities are varied. She works directly with children”those with disabilities who require special education services as well as those who are simply struggling with academics, emotions or social skills.

Keleher leads groups of children to strengthen their ability to cope with stress, peer pressure, and grief when they’ve suffered the loss of a loved one. She also meets with the dozens of new kids who enter the school (excluding kindergartners) each year, to assist in their transition to a new setting.

As a member of the School Services Team that handles special education requests and plans, Keleher completes diagnostic assessments, ensures services are delivered, and monitors children’s progress.

Keleher also supports the staff at Lincoln when they face struggles in the classroom, or in their own lives. “Directly or indirectly, if a teacher is under stress it will affect the kids,” she says.

Because she places a priority on direct contact with children, parents and staff, Keleher has to take much of the paperwork required for her job home with her. “I want to maximize the school hours to see people,” she explains.

She counsels a lot of parents, who seek her out for information and advice. The familiar atmosphere of the school can be less intimidating than a traditional mental health department or clinic, and is often more convenient.

“We’re available for collaboration and support. School staff can offer a different perspective; we can help lead parents to answers. I don’t want parents to feel alone in their struggles. We’re here; they can utilize us,” says Keleher.

Working for the Latino community

“We’re always seeking social reform and social justice,” says Doris Ayala, a social worker and co-founder of the Latino Family Institute (LFI) in Oak Park. Her social service career, spanning more than 20 years, has encompassed just about every area of the profession.

A clinician with a background in nursing, Ayala is nearing completion of her Ph.D. in social work. Along the way she’s co-founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating Latinos about mental health conditions and providing affordable treatment; picked up a master’s degree in law (jurisprudence); and most recently started a cleaning business as a way to create employment for people without many job options.

Born in Puerto Rico, Ayala grew up in Chicago’s Pilsen community, and dreamed of becoming a nurse. She attended Loyola University for one year, then transferred to a school in Puerto Rico. When she returned to Chicago she completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

After college, Ayala worked at a community agency doing social work, and decided to earn her master’s at the University of Chicago, specializing in clinical practice. Following graduation she continued her clinical training at the Family Institute, and spent a year at the Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Ayala explains that she was impressed with how the Institute of Psychoanalysis was organized, and found herself thinking, “We could do this for Latinos.” While working at a private psychiatric hospital, she met Dr. Walter Pedemonte, a Latino psychiatrist.

“I said, ‘I have a vision, will you help me build it?'” says Ayala. Pedemonte agreed to help Ayala, and they co-founded LFI in 1993.

LFI offers affordable mental health services, and spearheads the annual International Hispanic/Latino Mental Health Week”an event combining a professional conference with mental health screenings and education events aimed at the Hispanic/Latino community.

LFI also offers a scholarship for young people seeking careers in behavioral health, and produces Psychline, the Journal of Hispanic American Psychiatry.

Several years ago, Ayala decided to earn her Ph.D. at Loyola University, the school she had left so long ago. One of her last classes toward this degree was a course on law. Ayala found that she wanted to learn more about the subject, and concurrent with her Ph.D. program she entered a master’s program in jurisprudence at Loyola.

“I think it’s so important to integrate law into social services, as it relates to the people you’re trying to help,” Ayala says. She hopes to have her Ph.D. done by the spring of 2006.

While in school, Ayala continued her work at LFI. She was inspired to try yet another venture by some of her clients, who were depressed by their inability to find work. “Let’s see what I can do to create jobs,” she thought.

In partnership with her daughter, Ayala created Sweeping Dimensions, a cleaning company that provides rigorous training and fosters teamwork among its employees.

Ayala isn’t certain whether she’ll teach, conduct research or do something else when she completes her degree. Luckily, social work is a broad field, with room for anyone who wants to make a positive difference in the world.

According to the National Association of Social Workers, there are 296 social workers of one form or another in Oak Park and River Forest. Their jobs vary accordingly; here are more examples of local social workers on the job.

Ellen Gorney, director of programs, Catholic Charities of Chicago

Gorney has spent over 30 years at Catholic Charities, starting out in group homes. In her current role, she studies trends to determine how they’ll impact the services her agency delivers, and coordinates strategic planning. “Our primary focus is on the poor, trying to identify those services to improve their lives,” Gorney says.

Andy Teitelman, deputy managing director, resident services, Chicago Housing Authority

Teitelman works with businesses, programs and others to help CHA residents transition into new and rehabbed buildings, and toward self-sufficiency. “Collaboration will be key to strengthening families and communities,” Teitelman says. In his free time, he’s a member of a local band, Rhonda and the Replays, that will be doing a benefit concert at Fitzgerald’s on April 18.

Maudette Carr, Advocate Hospice, Downers Grove

Carr provides hospice social work services to terminally ill patients in their homes, hospitals, or nursing homes. Her agency serves a wide age group as well as varied cultures throughout the city and suburban area. “My reward comes from knowing that I’ve helped my patients reach a sense of peace, closure, and be a witness to their life and their death,” says Carr.

Rebekah Levin, executive director, Center for Impact Research

Levin earned her Ph.D. in social work at the University of Chicago. She worked in academia before coming to the Center for Impact Research, a nonprofit that conducts research on poverty issues with the goal of impacting public policy. “Applied research on issues of social and economic justice, which is what CIR does, has been quite important. Because of limited dollars, people want to know what’s working, and why,” says Levin.

Carl Washington, staffing coordinator for Social Work PRN

Social Work PRN temporarily places qualified social workers in settings around the Chicago area. These ‘temp’ workers are found in many facilities, ranging from hospitals to community mental health centers and schools. “Social workers can be found at every level of the human service continuum. [They] face a multitude of challenges in delivering quality, ethical services against the backdrop of increasingly complex consumer needs,” Washington explains.

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