Picture Hawaii, just a little smaller, a little more humid and a lot more diverse. That essentially is Guam, according to Ovita Perez, manager of NASW’s Guam Chapter.
She says she was a late bloomer — social work-wise — and received her bachelor’s in social work in 2006 from the University of Guam. Originally planning to be a special education teacher, Perez switched to social work after a friend told her he didn’t really see her as a teacher.
“He said, ‘No Ovita, you’d be a better social worker than teacher. That’s where your heart is.’ So I took a social work world view class, and after that I was hooked,” she said.
After receiving her MSW — also from the University of Guam — Perez quickly took to the profession and NASW, becoming the president of the Guam chapter in 2009, and then most recently its manager, in 2013. She also works as a behavioral health counselor with the Guam Department of Youth Affairs.
“Ever since I was a young kid, I felt social work came to me,” Perez said. “Whether it was standing up for myself in school, taking care of my dad in hospice, or helping my son find the right outcomes for his dyslexia, it’s all about helping others, and fighting for yourself and your rights.”
The island, where Perez is a native, has a close-knit community. With a population of about 150,000, she says the social work profession in Guam is growing. There are currently about 200 social workers, and nearly half of them are NASW members — with student membership on the rise.
“The recognition of the chapter has really grown out in the Guam community, and in the last several years we have made our name known in the media, in the legislature and in the governor’s office,” Perez said.
The Guam Chapter was created in the early 2000s, and is fairly young as far as NASW chapters go. Over the last few years, the chapter focused largely on communicating the importance of licensed professionals practicing social work.
Through chapter efforts, Perez says the Guam governor has appointed that all members of the Guam social work board be licensed social workers and at least one board member, at all times, must be a member of NASW.
“All these licensed individuals don’t have to be NASW members, but they have to sign and abide by the NASW code of ethics,” Perez said. “We now have the governor’s office and legislators calling the chapter all the time, to ask our advice and opinion.”
The chapter is also working on legalizing LGBT marriage in Guam. Given the predominance of Catholicism in the small community, Perez says, it’s a challenge.
“The Catholic religion is really strong, but we’re trying to push awareness,” Perez said. “It’s about civil rights for all people. A lot of social workers need to understand they may need to wear two different hats, so their personal issues and views don’t conflict with ethical values as social workers.”
Perez says she also hopes to make NASW webinars a little easier for current members to attend. With the time change, she says chapter members often have to wake up extremely early, or stay up really late to participate in webinars.
“One of our biggest complaints from members is having to be ready at 3 a.m. Guam time to participate in an NASW webinar,” she said. “Guam’s motto is ‘America’s day begins with us,’ so it can be a challenge to coordinate time zones because we are so far ahead.”
She says social workers are indeed needed in Guam, and she looks forward to continuing to spread the word, increasing membership and keeping momentum going for the chapter. “Part of the reason why I wanted to stay on with the chapter as (manager) is that it really needs strong leadership to continue, and someone who is not afraid to say what needs to be done,” she said. “We hope to keep that momentum going, and focus on the chapter moving forward.”