Why I Want To Be A Social Worker
My interest in social work stems from a love of volunteering that I possessed ever since I was a young child expressing great enthusiasm for church and school service events. As I grew older, I began volunteering for many other community events, such as serving over 200 hours at a local hospital, helping with free cancer screenings, and fitting children with free bike helmets. I even created my own donation drive for a local women’s and children’s shelter. I feel the best when I am striving to create positive changes in my community and for struggling, marginalized individuals. Social services have been a part of my life for a very long time, and I want it to continue to be on a professional level.
My interest persisted and grew as I began to see how my efforts had the ability to improve the lives of people around me. I first noticed this on a personal level as friends would come to me for advice or for me to listen to their struggles and provide comfort. No matter how mundane, horrific, unique, or common the story was, I listened to them in a genuine and non-judgmental manner. I truly enjoyed hearing people’s stories and providing comfort and advice when needed. These moments helped me realize the power of simply being there for someone, and it increased my interest of pursuing a career where I can support those who need it most. I want to become a social worker so I can provide direction to those who may not be able to get it from other sources, just like I have done for various people throughout my life.
Another reason I am interested in social work because it allows me to be an advocate. This is something that I took seriously on a personal level in high school. Growing up in rural Southeastern Idaho, many LGBT members of my high school struggled with being accepted. Many were ridiculed, or just simply avoided. One of my proudest moments in life was when I mustered up all my bravery to stand up in a class where many homophobic, uninformed comments were being said with a gay student present. I stated that people are entitled to their own opinions, but people also need to respect the choices and opinions of others. I explained that a people can treat members of the LGBT community kindly and respect their desires and decisions without condoning homosexuality, just like a person can still be kind to someone of a different religion without accepting what they believe as gospel. Later that day, a group of LGBT students approached me, including the boy from my class, hugged me, and said thank you for standing up for them. It was at that moment I realized I wanted to be an advocate for as long as I lived, and I have continue to be one to this day. This January I participated in Idaho Lobby Day with the Cancer Action Network and lobbied for a smoke free regulations and free breast cancer screenings for lower income women. It was exciting to talk with our legislators and rally for a cause that I care deeply about on the state level. As a...
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‘Good social workers can help silenced children be heard for the first time’
Carolyne Willow, former children’s social worker and children’s rights campaigner, UK
When I was 14, I put three things down on my list for the school careers interview: journalist, actress and social worker. From TV and films, it looked like journalism involved a lot of running about, and I had severe asthma, so that was out. And all the people I knew who were into drama were very extroverted and confident, and I didn’t feel I fitted. So I thought I should concentrate on trying to help people.
As a child, I was very ill, and spent time in a sanatorium. It brought me into contact with children who were far more poorly than me, and I had experience of friends in the sanatorium dying. I’m absolutely certain that my commitment as an adult, and as a young person, to treating people equally and including people and trying to ensure people are not made to feel inferior is related to those very early experiences.
I qualified as a social worker when I was 22. I feel very lucky that I was a children’s social worker in the late 80s and early 90s, when the climate was strikingly different in terms of what was expected of social workers. There was a real emphasis on working alongside people and understanding the predicaments they were facing. We had a lot more time, support and encouragement to build relationships with children and their families, than social workers appear to do now.
When I qualified as a social worker, I thought we could change the world. I still think that social work is grounded in pursuing social justice, and that social workers have unique and privileged opportunities to assist people to claim their rights and to improve their circumstances. Social workers on their own can’t change the world – but the social work function is about assisting individuals, families and communities to have more control over their lives and to fulfil their potential as human beings. Good social workers can help silenced children be heard for the first time.
When I was at further education college, I studied social policy, and was completely gripped by it. I remember in one lesson we were looking at the causes of poverty, and one theory in particular called the cycle of deprivation. And I said to the lecturer, “that explains why poverty goes from generation to generation, but it doesn’t explain how poverty came about in the first place”. And he looked at me with a broad smile, and said: “Keep asking those questions Carolyne.” And I think I have! Hopefully he’d be proud of me, that aged 49 I’m still asking those questions I did at 16.
‘Some of the best social work I’ve done has been in the aftermath of horrible plane crashes, helping people to rebuild their lives’
John Weaver, mental health social worker, US
I first went to college thinking I would become an English or maths teacher, but on the first day they told me there was a glut of teachers in the US at that time. I started to take psychology classes, enjoyed it and ended up majoring in it. And then I decided I’d rather get a graduate degree in social work than psychology, because it was a shorter path to being a clinician.
I’d never had any experience with social work, but when I was growing up my dad was dealing with serious mental illness. So I was familiar with what he was going through, and having grown up with that I thought it might be good to help people who are struggling to cope with, and help, a family member who has mental health issues.
Gulf war to 9/11: how social work takes me to disaster zones
Most people in the US think of a social worker as somebody who takes away a child who’s been abused or neglected in some way. And so in media portrayals, it’s pretty negative about social workers. But it’s also negative in the mental health field, there’s a lot of stigma around mental illness. So I thought being a social worker I could advocate and educate around those issues and try to change some of the public perceptions.
I’ve always worked in the mental health field, and I realised in the 1990s that I liked crisis work, so nights and weekends I would often be on call and work with people who were suicidal or threatening others. And then I started doing disaster work with the Red Cross; initially it was supporting people after fires and floods and things like that, but the third major disaster I helped them with was a US air plane crash. And after that I became a mass casualty person, so I’ve been associated with a lot of the major plane crashes that have happened in the years since then. I think some of the best social work I’ve done has been in the aftermath of some of those horrible plane crashes, just to support families and friends of folk who were lost in those kind of events, and help them get started on the road to rebuilding their lives.
John Weaver was recently featured in a film about secondary traumatic stress, Portraits of Professional Caregivers: Their Passion Their Pain. His blog about disaster mental health is Eye of the Storm.
‘It’s an honour when people tell me their stories’
Michelle McGee, older people’s social worker, New Zealand
I had vague notions of becoming a social worker or probation officer when I was at senior school. Our careers adviser did a quiz with me and that was my result. I then pretty much forgot all about it until I left an abusive husband when I was 32 with a young baby.
A social worker acted as an advocate for me with Work and Income New Zealand – the equivalent of the jobcentre in the UK – to obtain a temporary benefit. She arranged for the Women’s Refuge to furnish our new flat as we literally had nothing. I said to the social worker that I would like to volunteer for the refuge to give back once I was on my feet. She asked why I didn’t just become a social worker. I figured I needed to be able to support us financially so applied to study and it went from there.
Now I work with older people. It’s an honour when people tell me their stories, especially when I’m the first person they have spoken to about their concerns in years if not decades. To make a positive difference in people’s lives when they have resigned themselves to abuse is amazing. One one occasion, we moved a woman with learning disabilities from her home where her family had been severely abusing her and got her into residential care. When I visit her now and see the happiness on her face it brings tears to my eyes. When she was first showered at the home she was covered in bruises, and hardly spoke. Now you see her joining in with activities and chatting with other residents.
‘Social work is striving towards making the world a better world’
Rony Alfandary, social worker and academic at Bar-Ilan University, Israel
I qualified as a social worker in England in 1992. I chose this career after years of working as a counsellor and a photographer. I did lots of projects with people with disabilities, and became more and more interested in actually doing the work with people who needed help and support. And I thought social work would be a good profession; it can be applied in many different circumstances, it’s international, and it’s striving towards making the world a better world. This was more than 20 years ago, and I still believe that.
I moved back to Israel in 1993, after having grown up there. I believed the country was heading towards a big change, and wanted to work with the Israeli and Palestinian communities. And my family is Israeli and Jewish, so I wanted to contribute my abilities to that part of the community.
Israel is a young country, and it’s very diverse. We have people here from a hundred different communities and it’s fascinating living in such a multicultural society. It is a state which is still in a state of war with most of its surrounding countries, and there are at least two nations residing on the same part of land. I’m part of the community that believes this can be resolved peacefully. It’s a great challenge, because the reality is very often cruel and unsatisfying. But I think one has to persevere and teach and remain faithful to an inner belief that things can be changed. As a social worker, I work with all those communities and I have to adjust myself culturally to be able to understand and be empathic to those differences.
Social work is really a very wide practice, and some of the practice is dealing with just individuals. But in Israel social work represents a wide culture; you can’t just improve the fate of individuals. You have to think in larger terms.
‘I wanted to break the cycle of what I’d been through’
Dean Matthews, children’s social worker, UK
I really remember where I was when I decided to become a social worker. I was pacing up and down my front room one evening when I was about 24, going through all this stuff about what social workers do, what leads them to make decisions. It was quite a pivotal moment in my life. I was thinking about when social workers made decisions about me as a child, how did they make them, and were they the best decisions for me. And then it just struck me: this is something I’m going to do. I didn’t know how I was going to do it – I didn’t even know you needed a degree – but just decided I would do it.
My early experiences were definitely a driving force. When I was a youth worker, I could see that social work allowed you to have the greatest impact on people’s lives, and be able to drive positive change. I thought my experiences of social work meant I’d bring a lot of knowledge, and how beneficial that could be to the people I was working with. It’s not about saying: “I want to help people, I want to become a big powerful superhero type of person.” It was more that I wanted to break the cycle of what I’d been through.
There were so many short-term social workers when I was growing up, and I was moved around different placements so many times. And it all seemed very tokenistic, and that made it difficult – there were just people coming and going in my life all the time. I can see that now, and the impact it has on people. The biggest thing for me was about how I can do things differently, how I can perhaps get a service to do things differently.
I’ve been a social worker at a local authority since November. It’s been a massive identity shift, from care leaver to professional social worker. I still struggle with calling myself a social worker. But it’s been an eye opener, and it’s given me a different perspective on social work and the whole system.
‘I wanted to help protect people’s human rights and dignity’
Tegan Brazier, older people’s social worker, Australia
As cliched as it sounds, social work is something I was just drawn to. I never actively set out to be a social worker but I’ve always believed in the values of the profession. I honestly just wanted to help people. I wanted to help protect people’s human rights and dignity, particularly those who were most vulnerable in society. I also wanted to be available to people in need, to provide support to those who had nowhere else to turn. To provide the help that myself and others in my life didn’t get when we needed it the most.
Working with older people has been an absolute privilege. I think sometimes health and social care professionals can take away the rights and choices of older people as their health declines. It’s my role to advocate for the clients’ autonomy and capacity to decide for themselves, and to respect them and their social history.
When a mother walked out on her kids, I stayed up all night to save the family
My experience in social work has taught me to take the small victories and to assist a person to make small, positive changes in their lives. If that is my legacy to the people I’ve worked with, then I am happy and able to keep going. I think sometimes we, as a professionals, can overvalue our role in people’s lives. What we see as having made a huge difference may not have been as important to them. There are certain clients I think of from time to time, particularly the ones I have worked intensely with. But I think that’s the nature of our profession. We get involved when a person’s life is chaotic and they are in need of our help. We don’t get to hear many good news stories and we don’t get to follow up as often as we’d like. When the person is doing well and their life has stabilised, that’s when they get discharged from the service.
By far the greatest challenge for social workers in Australia is distance. Regional social workers have to travel vast distances to see clients. In my previous work, I had been known to drive a 614km round trip for one home visit. I also had colleagues who were required to travel to remote communities some 700km from their office on unsealed roads, carrying all of their water, food, fuel and sleeping equipment.
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