Many Agency Professionals Have Roots in Social Work

Social Work Events in March

March is Social Workers Month.

Lunch and Learn Webinar
March 15, noon to 1 p.m.

Joyce James, LMSW-AP, Associate Deputy Executive Commissioner of the Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities will speak. Ethics CEUs available.

Reserve a webinar seat

Luncheon and Awards, March 18, 11:30 to 1 p.m. Winters Public Hearing Room

This is the first of an occasional series in the Connection introducing you to the some of the diverse people and positions who  serve Texans throughout the  agencies. Today we  profile two HHS social workers who embody the profession’s ethics and ideals, whether it’s working in the field or behind the scenes.

They are among the best educated and do the dirtiest work our society has to offer. They have to deal with some of the hardest people in order to help the most vulnerable and be able to navigate a minefield of regulations, litigation, misunderstandings and hurt feelings all around.

“Social worker” is a term that describes a community more than it does a profession. You can find them in the field physically pulling clients out of unhealthy situations or in an office crunching numbers looking to see where resources can be best deployed, what policies need tweaking and what programs are working and which ones aren’t.

Melissa McChesney

Melissa McChesney

For Melissa McChesney, social work provided the opportunity to help influence implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s really one of the biggest policy shifts we will see in my career,” said McChesney, a policy analyst in the HHSC office of social services in Austin.

For Annabel Garza, who is an adult protective services subject matter specialist in Edinburg, it means working with clients at their most desperate point and working with field workers.

An 18-year-veteran of Adult Protective Services, Garza has been in her current position since 2002.

“I work with the case workers when it comes to dealing with very complicated, complex cases,” she said. “Really severe neglect or when we’ve got some legal actions going on.”

Annabel Garza

Annabel Garza

She said she took the job because she can take the horrible things she sees.

“I didn’t really shy away from the legal cases or the complicated stuff,” she said.

Both McChesney and Garza were preparing for their vocations their entire lives, growing up with a focus on helping those around them and a tradition of service.

McChesney grew up in Mississippi and though her parents, both teachers, were solidly middle class, she was surrounded by rural poverty.

“I think there is a particular type of aid that needs to be pursued when it comes to rural poverty,” she said.

“There is a way to go about it. It has to do with the networks that they have access to. You live in Austin you can’t throw a stick without hitting a non-profit. Often (those in rural areas) turn to their church community or maybe to the schools. There’s not a lot of organization other than church or school they can turn to. You have to make sure they can access it somehow.”

Despite her background and her parents’ careers as teachers, McChesney had to sell her family on her avocation.

“I think I had to tell them what it meant to be a social worker,” she said. “My mother was a little bit more familiar with the profession. My dad and my dad’s entire family are all scientists. I’m kind of the black sheep of the family.”

After graduating Central Arkansas with a degree in sociology, McChesney decided she wanted to be a little more involved than just doing studies would allow her, so she got her masters in social work from the University of Texas.

“I guess I was raised in the mindset that you do something that you love and do something you're good at for a career,” she said. “I kind of have a duty to make a difference with my life. You can do that outside of our work, but you can make a bigger difference inside your work.”

Many Occupations for Social Workers with HHS Agencies

Social Work isn’t a monolithic profession. A degree in the field can lead to jobs in program such as Refugee Services, Elimination of Health Disparities & Disproportionality, Early Childhood Coordination efforts, Faith and Community based initiatives, Domestic Violence Prevention, Quality Assurance, as training specialists, contract managers, policy writers, process development, research, and legislative support, investigators, social service surveyors, enforcement coordinators, and that’s just a few.

While McChesney’s background led her into “macro” social work, Garza’s led her into dealing directly with clients.

“I had a grandmother who was disabled and I spent a lot of time with her,” Garza said. “I spent a whole lot more time with her than I did with my mom. The fact that she was disabled and the fact that I met a real need for her that’s what my triggered my need to help people.”

After getting a bachelor’s in social work from Texas-Pan Am and a master’s from Texas State, Garza now takes on some of the toughest cases the agency handles, a choice she made.

“I wanted to be challenged a little bit more and that prompted me to go to grad school,” Garza said. “I knew that I wanted to do something in the helping professions. I can’t say I knew back then that that elderly care would be where I would do my best work.”

In her position, Garza sees the worst of the worst cases (a recent client was infested with maggots). She often deals with hoarders.

Dealing with the stress is a big part of her ability to focus.

“I think just getting away, getting out with friends and getting away from it is good for me,” she said. “I know that some folks come into this job and I guess they’re not cut out for it. They freak out. I still have the compassion that I had 18 years ago. I know that taking it home with me is not good for me. I fish, I bike, I hike,  I go to the gym.”

McChesney doesn’t have to  deal with those images at the macro level, but takes to heart the mission of her profession. She tries to reach out and have some contact with the clients and it’s that contact that refreshes her.

“I was talking to some of the clients about how they like the lobby computers,” she said, of the agency initiative to allow clients to sign up for benefits and monitor their status online. “I do like to reach out and go and see clients in the offices occasionally because it really grounds you.

“I think that the social work emphasis keeps me connected to our goal. It keeps me going.”

Both appreciate that they aren’t going to get rich, but they are living richer lives through service.

“I wanted to find a way to make a difference for groups of people, a large difference,” McChesney said. “We serve two million people in Texas. It’s exciting.”


Social Work Core Values

Source: National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics