Families share love of social work

Drawing of orchard with Social Work spelt out in apples at the foot of a treeEdith and Grace Abbott, born in 1876 and 1878 respectively, were sisters and pioneer social workers who shared an interest in public service as they worked closely together to tackle social problems and issues in public welfare.

John Sorenson — director of the Grace Abbot Project at the University of Nebraska — said the two Grand Island, Neb., natives were known for their teamwork and collaboration as they jointly pursued careers as social workers.

“They enjoyed working together,” Sorenson said. “As Edith Abbott described their relationship, they were sisters and comrades who were a powerful, effective team.”

The Abbott sisters are just one example of how people find themselves pursuing social work by following a sister, brother, parent or other relative into the field. Children absorb the habits of their immediate families and naturally transition into repeating actions that they closely observe, said social worker Keith Liederman, executive director of the Kingsley House in New Orleans which strives to improve the lives of children and their families in the southeastern region of Louisiana.

“Our early childhood experiences have a whole lot to do with who we become as adults,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that often we seek to emulate members of our immediate families who make an impression on us as children.”

The experience of growing up around family members involved in the social work field can establish a mentality early on that provides the basis for a potential career in social work.

“My mother, who was a social worker, and her social work friends did ‘talk shop’ at times, so I was introduced to psychodynamic thinking very early,” NASW President Jeane Anastas said.

“In the 1960s, there was a big upheaval and a lot was happening,” said Jack Richman, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina. “I didn’t know a whole lot about social work at that time, but my father was a psychologist, my brother was a Ph.D. psychologist, and with growing up in a psychologist family social sciences were important. Just like in a family that watches football every Sunday, the kids will grow up to see football as important. We’re bombarded from the day we’re born with family notions, so I’m not at all surprised to be in this field.”

Even if immediate family members are not technically in the field, observing their actions may still have a social work impact.

“My father, a businessman, said that if you want to get a great deal of satisfaction out of life, do something that is of great service to people,” said Merle ‘Terry’ Hokenstad Jr., professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “He also served on the board of the Salvation Army, and through watching his actions they influenced my career direction.”

Hokenstad now finds himself in a family full of social workers: His wife, Dorothy, and his daughters, Laura and Alene, are all in the field.

“My wife and I met while doing child welfare work in South Dakota,” Hokenstad said. “We both went on to get our MSWs and two of our daughters are social workers. As for our third daughter, she has a degree in public administration, so she didn’t stray too far from the fold.”

A life-changing event within a family also can lead someone into pursuing a social work career. That’s what happened to social worker Heidi Horsley, an NASW member and executive director and co-founder of the “Open to Hope” foundation and radio show. She said losing her brother, Scott, was a turning point in her life that steered her toward becoming a social worker.

“I had always observed my mom volunteering and working in the social services field,” the Manhattan resident said. “But after my brother passed away in a car accident, I was only 20 years old and I began to question why I was on this earth. That’s when social work called to me.”

Horsley’s mother, Gloria Horsley, who is the president and founder of “Open to Hope,” collaborates with her daughter to reach out to listening and online audiences that are experiencing the process of bereavement.

“I created “Open to Hope” with my son’s memory,” said Gloria Horsley, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif. “Heidi and I now work together to extend guidance and support to anyone in a family coping with bereavement, whether it’s the loss of a child, or a brother or sister, a very close family member, even a good friend that felt like family.”

Children who follow in the footsteps of their social worker parents often see their career choice as inevitable, and some could not imagine doing anything else.

“Even though I was born in the late 1960s, I always felt connected to the social justices of that era,” said Chicago resident Laura Hokenstad, a social worker and American Red Cross liaison to FEMA Region V. “I heard my parents’ stories about the civil rights movement, I listened to the music of the time, and I always felt inspired by it. I’ve long admired my parents’ work and value system. Because of the way I was raised, I never doubted that I could and would have a part in impacting social change.”

And social work doctoral student Erica Richman, a Chapel Hill, N.C., resident, said the fact that her parents are both social workers gave her the idea that she could make a difference in the world.

“ … That influenced the social awareness that I had and the idea that I could make a change,” she said. “Even though I was free to pursue what I wanted, social work was ingrained in me.”

Having a social worker parent can also be a source of inspiration for the children who follow the same path. And the benefits of having fellow social worker family members extend both inside and outside of work.

“My mother actually came to the United States on scholarship to get her MSW, a degree not available in her home country (Sweden) until later, which suggested that a social work degree was worth a lot,” Anastas said. “When I became a social worker myself, I remained in contact with many of my mother’s close friends, who were also social workers. I later learned much from them about the history of social work in the child guidance movement, which was her (and their) area of practice.”

Liederman reflects on the many discussions he had with his father, the late David Liederman, longtime executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, and also a social worker. He still remembers his father’s advice, and says the countless conversations they had about the importance of the social work profession, their contribution to the field and the betterment of society, continue to guide and influence him to this day.

“I was so fortunate to have my father as a mentor during the first 15 years of my social work career,” Liederman said. “Having the ability to constantly receive expert consultation from him on the wide range of personal and professional issues that I faced as I was honing my skills and abilities as a social worker was instrumental in shaping my practice and approach.”

According to the Horsleys, even vacationing together is beneficial, as they can spend time brainstorming new projects for “Open to Hope.”

Alene Hokenstad, an Island Peer Review Organization contract manager who lives in New York City, also sees her social work family as a great collaborative tool for guidance.

“I frequently consult with my immediate family about my work, challenges, strategies and ethical issues,” she said. “In fact, they are my preferred source of feedback.”

And sitting down to dinner with a social work family will never be dull, said her sister, Laura Hokenstad.

“We have really lively dinner discussions,” she said. “We have all made a difference in the world. I’m proud to come from a family of social workers.”