Social Work Month Celebrates Impact of Vital Profession in Florida

For many children who are victims of abuse or neglect, a social worker is the first adult who truly cares about them and wants the best for them. In honor of Social Work Month, held each year in March, the staff of Embrace Florida Kids salutes these dedicated and compassionate professionals who work tirelessly to keep children safe.

The theme of Social Work Month 2022 is “The Time is Right for Social Work,” according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).  The month-long campaign aims to inform the public, lawmakers and policymakers of the vital work and lifechanging impact the profession has on the most vulnerable in our communities.

“For many children, a social worker’s actions can be lifesaving,” said Kristin Alberda, Executive Director of Embrace Florida Kids, which provides homes, healing and hope to children and youth in dire circumstances.

Kristin Alberda, LICSW, Senior Vice President of Operations

“Social workers are true heroes,” she said. “They may be called to dangerous situations in the middle of the night, they help ensure that hurting children have a safe place to stay and that all their needs are met, and they often provide the love and hugs these children and youth so desperately need.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest growing professions in the country. Currently, there are more than 700,000 professional social workers in the United States and more than 3 million worldwide. In Florida, about 36 percent of the state’s nearly 30,000 social workers are child, family and school social workers while the remainder work in other areas, including healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse.

“Social workers touch millions of lives each day,” Alberda said. “It’s a hard job but it’s one of the most important ones. We are so grateful for the tremendous impact they make in the lives of vulnerable children and families, especially those in Florida.”

Pen Air Employees Support Co-Worker and Foster Children

In the five years April Mason has been a foster parent, she’s kept a poster outside her cubicle at work with photos of the children she and her husband have welcomed into their home.

Many of her co-workers at Pen Air Federal Credit Union have heard all about the joyful chaos that comes with having a house full of kids, and they’ve supported April through the years as she opened her heart to hurting children. Most recently, they voted to award Embrace Florida Kids (EFK), a ministry of the United Methodist Children’s Home, with a $5,000 gift through their Jeans for Communerosity program.

The Masons, foster parents of 5 years.

Communerosity, “where community meets generosity,” is an employee-driven fundraising effort, and Mason nominated the ministry for the award. She and her co-workers donate money in order to wear jeans to work on certain days, and the funds raised are matched by Pen Air. Employees vote on the nominated nonprofits, and the money is divided equally among those selected. This year, 10 nonprofits received the award.

“I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to educate people in our community about the need for foster care,” Mason said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad things in the world and there are so many children who don’t have homes. It’s been a real eye opener.”

Mason said she had always wanted to be a foster parent, and she and her husband decided to move forward after talking with friends who are licensed through EFK. “We have been blessed with more than we need and we wanted to share what we have,” she said.

The Masons, who have a 6-year-old daughter, have fostered about 15 children. Some have stayed for years while others were only with them a few days until being placed with family members. “Our daughter has really never known any difference,” Mason said. “She just thinks she has a whole lot of siblings.”

Soon, she really will. The Masons are in the process of adopting biological siblings – a boy and a girl – who have been with them for a year and a half. They still plan to keep fostering even after the adoption is finalized.

“I love being able to help these kids and their families,” Mason said. “We’ve kept in touch with about 80 percent of the kids and they still come and spend the night. They’re a big part of our lives and our daughter’s life.”

Former Girls Home Resident Returns in a Reversed Role

When Alisha Clary had a chance encounter with her former house mother at her goddaughter’s birthday party in 2006, she left with an answer to prayer.

The birthday girl’s mother had lived with Alisha in UMCH’s group home in Milton, Florida when they were teenagers, and staff members from the home were at the party. One staff member mentioned she was retiring and her position would soon be available. “She said it three different times, and I got the weirdest feeling,” Alisha said.

Not long before the party, Alisha had turned to the Lord for guidance because she felt like her life had no meaning. She was working two jobs and constantly felt overwhelmed. “I prayed and asked what He wanted me to do,” Alisha remembered. That night, she dreamed that she was surrounded by young girls. Their arms were together, forming a circle.

As she left the party, Alisha thought about the dream. “I wondered if this was what He was calling me to do,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would hire me because I had lived there.”

They did, though, and one of Alisha’s former housemothers would train her. Now, Alisha serves as a Youth Care Worker at the home. “Basically, I do everything a parent does, but with a lot of paperwork,” she said.

She cooks, cleans and drives the girls to after-school activities, court or counseling sessions. She helps with homework, attends school programs, but perhaps one of her most notable responsibilities is to relate to girls like only she can having walked in their shoes. Whether it’s emotional, relational or spiritual, she acts as a sounding board and offers insight that’s a result of overcoming
have to overcome.

“I wasn’t in exactly the same situation as a lot of the girls, but we had similar experiences,” she said. “Hopefully they can see that there’s hope for something better. You can be better than what
your parents were.”

Alisha came to the group home when she was 16 and stayed for nearly two years. “It was the only place I ever felt safe and loved,” she said. She started college after she left, but had been working
in retail when Abbi Shawyer, the group home’s manager, hired her.

“When Abbi hired me, it was with the stipulation that I would go back to college and finish my degree,” she said. “I think it was the push I needed.” Alisha earned a degree in social work from the
University of West Florida in May 2011.

Now she strives to be a stable force in the lives of the girls who come to the group home. “It’s an awesome place,” Alisha said. “It’s a place where girls come and feel safe, secure, loved and
nurtured. That’s what we hope for.”

Ministries Trade Spaces to Better Serve Community’s Most Vulnerable.

When Ann Sprague was in the early stages of starting her ministry for the homeless in Crestview, she prayed for God to open doors and windows. She never dreamed those windows and doors would come with 14 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms.

That’s what happened, though, when UMCH had a building in Crestview that was too big for its needs and Sprague’s ministry had needs that were too big for its building. The two agencies decided to trade spaces to better meet the needs of the community.

“We’re working together to do God’s will,” said Sprague, Executive Director of the Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless (CASH). “I knew God had a plan, but He’s so creative. He comes up with ways I could never imagine.”

Anne Sprague, Executive Director of Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless signing contract for the non-profit’s new facility, owned by UMCH.

The facility, now home to CASH’s Helping Hands ministry, was originally used by UMCH as a group home for girls and boys, ages 11-17, who could no longer live with their families. Four years after it opened, child welfare advocates at the federal level began advocating for foster homes instead of group homes, and UMCH helped the kids transition, finding foster homes for some as others transitioned to independence, according to Kristin Alberda, Executive Director.

In an effort to continue supporting the youth and their foster families, UMCH changed its focus and opened a teen center, offering after-school programs, tutoring, and help with resumes, job applications and interview training. The center also provides snacks, hygiene items, and opportunities for the youth to participate in enrichment activities such as art and dance classes. “It’s hard for children in transition to participate in extracurricular activities, but it’s important to help them build social skills” Alberda said. “This all came from a desire to provide some additional support to keep kids stable wherever they are.”

Kids and youth at First United Methodist Church in Crestview gather outside of the Embrace Teen Center. Over the past year, the church has taken on the teen center as a major missions project.

While the Embrace Teen Center serves many needs, the facility was too big for its current use. The solution came during a meeting with staff of UMCH’s recently rebranded Northwest Florida ministry, and Dr. Michael Precht, who at the time, was the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Crestview. CASH had been using a former parsonage on the church property as a cold night shelter and the ministry’s headquarters, and Precht knew of Sprague’s desire to expand.

“We’re working together to do God’s will,” said Sprague, Executive Director of the Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless (CASH). “I knew God had a plan, but He’s so creative. He comes up with ways I could never imagine.”

“I was very aware of how desperately the community needed these resources for the homeless because we fielded those calls every day,” he said. “By the end of our meeting, we were thinking, we were dreaming, we were wondering if it could come to be. It was a real answer to prayer.”

Sprague had been searching for the perfect facility for quite a while. After a 35-year career in teaching, she started her ministry in 2008 in hopes of providing a cold night shelter for those living on the streets. She partnered with churches that opened their doors to the homeless during bad weather, but after a few years, the demand had grown and so had the ministry.

In 2014, CASH organized as a 501(c)3 and First Methodist offered the use of its former parsonage for office space. They added a day program coined “Helping Hands” which provides lunch, laundry facilities, showers, clothing, and other necessities. In addition, volunteers provide transportation to doctors’ appointments and help the homeless get prescriptions, identification and benefits such as Social Security disability.

The only thing missing was a permanent home that would allow the ministry to serve those in need year-round. When Sprague first saw UMCH’s space, “my mouth dropped open,” she said. The building has two separate wings so they can accommodate men on one side, women and children on the other, and have a few rooms reserved for families. “We’ve had as many as 30 people lined up to use one shower at our old place – one shower,” Sprague said. “Now we have 14 showers. You always hope and dream you’ll get a better place and be able to help more people, but you don’t know how that will happen. You just know that God has a plan.

Precht, who has since moved to Dauphin Way United Methodist Church, said the Crestview congregation was excited about the opportunity to work more closely with the Embrace Teen Center. “We take great pride in honoring and supporting the kids in the Children’s Home, and I just knew our church would be so excited to have them in our backyard.”

Alberda said the Embrace Teen Center is enjoying its new home in the 3-bedroom, 2-bath parsonage at First Methodist, and the congregation welcomed them by stocking the shelves with school supplies, backpacks and toiletries. In addition, the students are able to use the church’s facilities and outdoor space for their programs. “The church has been very gracious,” she said. “It’s all pretty exciting.”

No one is more excited than Sprague. “I get emotional talking about it,” she said. “We’re just so grateful to the Children’s Home for this blessing. God definitely had His hand in this.”