by Mitzi Harmon, BSW
After years of classroom social work, I have reached real-world realization. As a student, one learns the principles, the theories, and the terminology. In order to follow through the many tedious research projects, the exams, and the lectures, one must have experienced the fever for the field. Social workers everywhere know the fever. Before they had ever heard the title social worker, they were the ones helping those other fourth-graders with every problem, rescuing the tormented, and settling the arguments.
It is this inherent need to continuously help others that, I believe, leads us, though sometimes blindly, into social work programs everywhere. So we learn. We identify with the Code of Ethics and commit it into our hearts. Along the way we grow up a bit, set our goals, and accidentally find our mentors, our beacons showing us the way. On the horizon is a future, uncertain, yet steadily approaching.
I was apprehensive and excited as my field placement grew nearer. Of course, graduation is now in sight. Before achieving that milestone was a summer of experience as such I had never dreamed. I began my first week as a social work intern with a home health care agency with high hopes. I hoped to cure the sick, provide for the elderly, and make many, many grateful friends along the path of this sunny, happy job.
I realized within hours of my arrival that needs within my sheltered, safe little community were much greater than I had ever anticipated. The bureaucracy of paperwork, managed health care requirements, and the general atmosphere of silent chaos that comes with trying to change the world overwhelmed me. However, during my first set of in-home visits and assessments, my eyes were opened to the real world. Not only did I watch the social worker take roads I had yet to find out existed, but the destinations were not the neat and tidy, nice little retirement homes I expected to see. One by one, I was enlightened.
People were suffering. There were those without their badly needed medicines, with no hope of acquiring the money for them in this lifetime. There were those with no caregiver, no contact-in-case-of-emergency to list, no one to turn to anywhere, for any request. I thought that only in the inner cities of Metro America did people live without resources taken for granted such as electricity, running water, and food for their next meal. I could not have been more shocked as I realized that, less than ten minutes from my sheltered home, people had such overwhelming, unmet needs.
One might think that I would go on from here, telling more dramatic horrible finds. However, this is where I learned the first, and thus far, most valuable lesson of my life as a social worker. Just when I thought I would break down at the sight of such raw existence, the social worker with whom I was training began to plan, while she explained, her strategies to acquire resources from within the community to make better the lives of these people. Oh yes, I had heard the lectures on the importance of networking and using one's resources. Never had I imagined such great proportions in which to do this. She was efficient and knowledgeable. She knew which pharmaceutical companies to call for each prescription. She named off resources and programs of which I had never heard. Within only a few hours, I was witness to actual progress in several cases.
Of course, we were not saving the world for everyone, but I am pretty sure we brought some unexpected great relief into a few lives. To see someone's' face light up, to see tears of appreciation well up in their eyes, and to hear them call you “an angel from the Lord” at the sight of a simple bag of groceries or a voucher for a week's worth of “his heart pills” was enough for me to realize the great power, we, as social workers, have in using our resources.
For the next two days, I devoted every spare minute between patients, paperwork, and class to seeking out new resources to add to my already growing files. It was not and is not work, as I see it. Every time I locate another willing person, another agency devoted to helping others, or another successful company that is willing to share its wealth and success with others, I am thrilled.
This is the social work I have been moving toward all my life. This is the small difference I can make--just me. I now understand the textbook chapter that called us “links.” I feel the privilege of knowing I can even meet some of the people I will know in this career. I now have a solid faith in a world that allows elderly people, who have worked for all they have, to have so little.
I am a social worker. I have faith because I am here to help them help themselves, and to help others help one another.
Mitzi Harmon recently received her BSW from Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL.
This article appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of The New Social Worker.