Originally from Wisconsin — a place known for cold, snowy winters —Sonja Bigalke-Bannan has called Hawaii her home for about a decade, where the average temperature of the tropical climate hovers around 80 degrees.
It’s a diverse place, and can be both beautiful and challenging to live in, said Bigalke-Bannan, who became the executive director of NASW’s Hawaii Chapter a year ago.
“There is a housing crunch, and, because of its remote location, there are worries about food and security. A gallon of milk can cost $10 if it’s not on sale,” she said. “But there is also a lot of positive, and it’s really unique culturally.”
Bigalke-Bannan said she worked in fast-paced roles connected to social work before becoming director of the Hawaii Chapter.
Her roles included working as an emergency medical technician, and positions that involved disaster relief, nonprofit management, and safety and compliance programming. In addition, she says people have always naturally opened up to her. But pursuing social work didn’t immediately come to mind — until a pause in her career made her contemplate graduate school.
She came to the conclusion then that social work was the next step.
“A social work relative had said to me ‘when are you going to realize you are a social worker?’” she said. “That made me step back and take a look at the bigger picture. (I realized) the social work pieces were all there.”
After receiving her master’s degree in social work in May 2014 from the University of Hawaii, Bigalke-Bannan — who is also certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association — was hired three months later for the NASW Hawaii Chapter executive director position. She says her eclectic background has given her strengths that she feels make her unique for the position.
“I have experience with working on a shoestring budget, advertising and community-building,” she said. “All of this is helpful in my position.”
The Hawaii Chapter has about 840 members, and Bigalke-Bannan says her goal is to increase this number to 1,000 within the next two years. She adds that the chapter is focused on being responsive to member needs, especially students and new members. One way is by offering test prep courses for members, which prepares them to take the social work licensing exam.
“The classes are held monthly at a significantly lower rate than traditional prep courses,” Bigalke-Bannan says. “They offer step-by-step guidance on how to approach the licensing process in the state, how to get registered, basic logistics, tips from recent test-takers, and a breakdown of what to expect on the exam.”
The chapter is also working to develop a social work supervision course, which will be available in 2016. The course will provide the fundamentals of licensed clinical social work supervision; what is required by Hawaii law, different ideologies behind types of supervision, practicum vs. clinical supervision, and ethical considerations.
Bigalke-Bannan said she would like to extend thanks to colleagues at NASW-Michigan who have been instrumental in assisting her chapter with the development of its own course.
The chapter will host a conference cruise in December, which will stop at four Hawaiian islands. Each island stop will have a different workshop theme, such as cultural trauma, grief and loss, or hospice. Courses are offered at every stop and workshops will be offered nightly on the cruise.
“Folks disembark and go to workshops and members can receive 25 to 30 CEs by attending the weeklong excursion,” Bigalke-Bannan said. “Nonmembers can also attend, and have the opportunity to travel to neighboring islands.”
Bigalke-Bannan says state legislative advocacy for NASW-Hawaii is strong, and she hopes to expand that into city councils, where county decisions are made.
“We are part of several legislative lobbying coalitions — the Women’s Coalition, the Keiki (Kids) caucus and the Kupuna (Elder) caucus,” she said. “The Hawaii Chapter has worked to establish relationships with legislators and be a consistent presence lobbying at the capital.”
NASW-Hawaii also partners with other NASW chapters to offer a full range of resources to its members. Being a small chapter, Bigalke-Bannan says this connection is important and she hopes to bridge the gap geographically by increasing the amount of webinars, virtual programming and opportunities for members.
“We’ve got a whole lot of different projects we’re working on, and we’re increasing our chapter presence throughout Hawaii,” she said. “We’re excited about what lies ahead.”
For more information on NASW-Hawaii.