Social Workers: Improving the Present, Saving the Future

By Mark Stubis, Human & Environmental Welfare Columnist

( The future isn’t what it used to be. And for millions of Americans facing significant emotional and physical health problems, that’s reason to be grateful. Not so long ago, the prospect of falling ill, getting old, or simply having the bad luck to face a major crisis without the help of friends or family was not only daunting, but accompanied by the likelihood of a bleak future. Fortunately, a small army of dedicated workers has arisen over the years and now toils across the nation to improve life for those in greatest need, often changing the outlook of what lies ahead. The foot soldiers in the battle to lift up the frail, the fallen, and the frightened are known to most of us by the overly modest appellation “social workers.”

March is National Social Work Month, four short weeks during which we honor those who labor year round to take care of us, our mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, and children when a helping hand is most needed. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), there are some 640,000 professional social workers in the United States. Their mission is to help people transform their lives and improve the human environment to make such progress possible. Many of the people on the front lines of protecting the most vulnerable are social workers, and are involved in an unexpectedly wide variety of ways. Social workers work in child abuse prevention, mental health outreach, disaster relief, homeless shelters, family preservation programs, veteran’s services, school violence prevention, elder care, and hospice care. They are there to help with every struggle, from our first steps in life to our last dance with death.

David Jones, LMSW is one example of how social workers make a difference not only to individuals but entire communities and beyond. In 1997 Jones joined the highly regarded home health care organization Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) to inaugurate its Early Head Start program. Many of the children had no father figures and Jones set about creating a series of fatherhood initiatives to encourage young men to play more significant roles in the lives of their sons and daughters. Through VNSNY’s Fathers First Initiative and the Bronx Fatherhood Program, more than 600 men have been helped with individual counseling, parenting education, child development workshops and employment assistance – all designed to enhance fathers’ involvement with their children and to increase understanding of their rights, roles and responsibilities as parents. The conceptual framework and engagement model has since been adopted by the national Head Start program as a model for involvement of fathers in their programs across the country.

Jones’ colleagues Gui Loo and Norman Hellman also demonstrate how social workers bring much-needed care to diverse, underserved groups and those needing special attention.

Gui Loo works in a 23-block area of Manhattan’s Chinatown in New York City – the largest concentration of people of Chinese ancestry outside Asia. As the licensed social worker for VNSNY’s Asian Hospice team, she brings cultural sensitivity to end-of-life care for patients and their families who often face speaking barriers or who cannot negotiate the system without help. Her assistance helps families avoid additional stress at a difficult time.

Norman Hellman is a licensed social worker whose language skills help people from a wide range of ethnic groups. He is able to converse with his patients in Spanish, Caribbean patois, and even a smattering of Hindi. One elderly married couple from Jamaica that was feeling homesick at Christmas time was treated to an old calypso carol Norman had learned called “The Borning Day.” When he sang it for them, they sang along and wept, saying it was the best present they had received in years. Hellman embraces his charges’ cultures, loves their food, and makes them feel special and loved. In another case, he helped a disabled patient with his bid for U.S. citizenship.

Whether rebuilding individual lives affected by illness, families split by poverty or distance, or entire communities affected by disasters such as earthquakes, fire or Hurricane Katrina, social workers like David Jones, Gui Loo, and Norman Hellman have become the glue that quietly holds us together when crises strike. This March, during National Social Work Month, let’s make a little noise and celebrate their work on our behalf.

David Jones, LMSW, one of the many heroes of National Social Work Month

HELPFUL LINKS  Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) is the nation’s largest not-for-profit home health care organization, founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, the “mother of public health nursing” and pioneering social worker. VNSNY’s workforce includes hundreds of social workers who work together with their nurses, rehabilitation therapists and other colleagues to provide care to patients in the safety and comfort of their homes.  The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world. NASW works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies.

Mark Stubis is a national nonprofit, healthcare and media executive with more than 20 years of experience working with leading charities, Fortune 500 companies, and global news organizations. An award-winning creator of public-issue awareness and prevention campaigns, Stubis’ work has been carried by more than 100,000 newspapers, TV and radio stations, and websites in 100 countries around the world. In his free time, the Juilliard-trained musician plays the piano and chess at his castle in the New York City area. You can contact him at .

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