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Building the Mindset for a Social Services Career

Guest blog written by Melissa Y.M. Webster, M.S., LCPC, Executive Director of One Hope United’s Residential and Day School Programs

With the employment landscape changing every day in this country, industries like social welfare must adapt and innovate in order to continue to provide the critical, often life-saving services our young people need. I supervise One Hope United’s residential programs, which provide live-in care for youth whose needs are best addressed in a highly structured environment. The young adults we serve have a history of trauma, and they need our support 24 hours a day. While the situations we face are often painful and overwhelming, our work is also incredibly rewarding. My staff and I go home every day knowing that we helped a young person feel seen and loved.  

You can imagine the challenges a global pandemic and employment crisis pose in our line of work. While these obstacles are significant, our team is working hard to meet the present moment head on. 

When considering what makes our programs unique and how we have been able to respond during this time, I have found three unique approaches that we have taken have helped us find the best people to serve our youth. If you are interested in a career in social services, whether it be as a residential youth care worker or a similar position, these tips can help you gain the tools you need to build your career – and in turn, make a difference in someone’s life. 

First, find your why. This is imperative for staff members at every level, from senior managers to entry-level youth care workers. Once you know why you are here, you can encourage those around you. I have young team members who have served youth and families for over 10 years. Many started when they were 21 or 22 years old, and they have remained in the field and at One Hope United. 

Our world is full of opportunities, and many of these talented and committed team members could find meaningful and lucrative employment in a myriad of fields. Why do they choose One Hope United? There are many reasons, but I believe the biggest reason is that these young professionals have found their “why.” 

Simon Senek gave a highly viewed Ted Talk on finding your why: your purpose, your calling, your beliefs. What gets you out of bed in the morning? Why this job and why stay?

I have done this work for a long time. I know why I am here, and what drives me to keep doing this hard work every day. My residential team members have found their whys. They are pulled out of bed in the morning by a love of serving teens who have suffered trauma, who often have mental health issues and behavior disorders. The days are always challenging, and sometimes the struggles our youth face drive people away. But those who stay do so because they have found greater purpose in remaining committed to extremely demanding yet fulfilling work.

Next, find your team. Social services professionals are team driven. We work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We do it because we are committed to our youth, but we also do it because we are committed to each other. 

Residential folks have found a tribe in their team members. At One Hope United, we are a team of people who share a passion to serve this population of youth. We serve alongside inspiring professionals and paraprofessionals who, in the deepest part of their souls, want the world to be a better place, one youth at a time. What a blessing it is to have a workplace where we come together, see a vision for a different kind of world, and work with people we like and respect to reach that vision. Once you find your why and your team, it is hard to imagine doing anything else. 

Finally, help others see the value of what we do. Most of our residential programs at One Hope United had their roots in orphanages founded over 125 years ago. There is a mythos in our culture around the orphanage and orphans: think of Dicken’s Oliver Twist and Annie. It’s important that whenever we can, we challenge misconceptions about the work we do, and help our friends, family members, and the general public gain a more accurate understanding of what modern residential programs actually look like. 

When people learn what I do, they always want to know more. They always want to hear the stories. What I am proud to tell you after almost a quarter of a century in this field is that we make a difference. From the first youth served at the beginning of my career to now, many of them still reach out. They tell us we made an impact in their lives: who they are today was in part shaped by us. We see their children, their work, and who they have become as an adult. They share their accomplishments and their challenges. 

A key part of attracting the right people to serve our youth is finding people who care that the work they do today will create happier and more successful adults, five, ten, twenty-five or fifty years in the future. Many jobs are rewarding, but our careers help support a shifted trajectory of the lives of youth who have suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in the most traumatic ways possible. 

Final Thoughts: Even as essential workers who have been on the frontline throughout this challenging time, our focus remains on providing the highest standard of care possible to the vulnerable youth we serve. Our young people deserve the opportunity to build happy, healthy lives, and we help equip them with the tools they need to do so. I know that if you choose a career in social services, you will find fulfillment in a mission centered around serving others.

Want to make a difference in the life of a child, youth, or family? Learn about current employment opportunities with One Hope United here. 

Hope Talks | August 2021

Hope Talks

“Advocating for Affordable Child Care and Education”

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Hope Talks 

One Hope United is proud to bring you Hope Talks, monthly conversations with leaders in the child and family welfare sector. By having these conversations, we hope to inspire actionable change and work together to improve outcomes for the children and families we serve. 

In this month’s episode, Dr. Charles A. Montorio-Archer is joined by April Janney, President & CEO of Illinois Action for Children, to discuss Advocating for Affordable Child Care and Education.

About April Janney

April Janney is the President and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. Janney was named to this position in January 2021 after serving as Acting President and CEO since June 2020.

Working with children in Chicago and throughout Illinois to foster positive outcomes has been April Janney’s passion for more than 30 years. Prior to becoming President and CEO, Janney served as IAFCs Senior VP of Operations and Senior VP of Programs.

Before joining the Illinois Action for Children leadership team as Director of Provider Programs in 2010, Janney provided school-age programming through a career that spanned 21 years with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Boys & Girls Clubs Chicago. Janney earned her master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on Nonprofit Management from Roosevelt University as a Woodruff Fellow and holds a bachelor’s Science degree in Education: Early Childhood and Special Education from Chicago State University.

About One Hope United 

Founded in 1895, One Hope United is a multistate nonprofit that helps children and families build the skills to live life without limits. We serve over 10,000 children and families each year through education centers, child and family services, counseling, and residential programs. With our evidence-based and trauma-informed practices, we empower children and families to see and create a future where, regardless of their past, they can reach their full potential. 

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5 Tips to Prepare Your Children for Preschool

Beginning preschool is an important milestone that will likely bring feelings of excitement, anxiety, and curiosity for both parents and kids. The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic may make the transition even more daunting. One Hope United Early Learning Centers are ready to welcome preschoolers back to the classroom, and want to make sure your little one is ready for a fun year of learning! Here are 5 simple steps our teachers recommend to prepare your child for preschool, so they are ready for all the fun, exploring, and learning they will experience in the years ahead.

1. Talk with your child about their feelings around school. Your child may need some time to find the right words to convey how they feel about going to school. They will likely encounter a mix of excitement and nervousness, especially because many children are wary around strangers when they first meet them. 

If your preschool offers a virtual or in-person back-to-school or meet-the-teacher event prior to the first day, this can go a long way toward helping your child feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Remember to point out things like the classroom library, blocks, or fire trucks, as your child will likely remember and hold onto memories of favorite classroom items as they prepare for their first day of school. Marybeth Mlikotic, Director of Programs at One Hope United’s Bridgeport Early Learning Center, shared, “Seeing toys, games, and play areas ahead of time helps children connect with the concept of school, and focus on specific activities they’ll be doing at school. It can be tough for children to connect with the concept of making friends, but things like having their own locker, playing restaurant, or bringing their blanket or lovie for naptime is easier for a child to visualize.”

As a parent, you can help your child get used to the idea of school by asking them some open-ended questions, like what they are most looking forward to, or what they may feel nervous about. It is also important to validate children’s feelings and discuss any changes to their day-to-day routines ahead of time, so they are ready for and used to their new schedule when it is time to start school.

2. Prepare them for the social-emotional aspects of preschool. Children in a preschool classroom may range in age from 2 to 5 years old, and may be at various stages of social, emotional, and intellectual development. Your child’s preschool teacher will likely focus on many aspects of social and emotional growth in the first few months of the school year, so children become more comfortable with concepts like sharing, getting to know their classmates, dealing with disagreements, and helping themselves when they are experiencing tough emotions. After developing this social-emotional foundation, children will have the tools they need to build on other aspects of their development, like language, literacy, and math. 

One of the best things parents can do to prepare their children for the social and emotional components of their school life is to practice interacting with family members and friends in a group setting, and even role-playing certain scenarios, like what their child should do if they are feeling sad, or how to show kindness to classmates. 

Marybeth said that an important piece of helping children feel comfortable socially in their new preschool environment is becoming acclimated with teachers and staff members at school. That’s why teachers at OHU’s Bridgeport Center take steps like hanging photos of team members in each classroom, so that when a teacher, staff member, or maintenance team member enters the classroom, children are already familiar with their face. Children also practice expressing their emotions through activities like journaling or drawing pictures. Additionally, students answer a question of the day that may address topics like what it felt like to say goodbye to their parent or guardian that morning, or how to help a friend feel better if they are sad. 

“It’s about more than learning ABC’s and 1-2-3’s,” Marybeth shared. “One Hope United’s Early Learning Centers care for the whole child, and help them develop equally important skills, like negotiating space, conflict, and relationships.”

3. Stick to routines and schedules at home. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have faced challenges creating a steady day-to-day routine for children. In the weeks leading up to a child’s first day of school, it can be beneficial for parents to start their back-to-school schedule ahead of time. A predictable weekday is a helpful way to support a child’s emotions and prepare them for success in the classroom environment. 

Each day in the classroom at OHU Early Learning Centers follows a predictable pattern, and this is a key part of acclimating children to the school environment. Kids get used to lining up for lunch, playing at recess, and prepared lessons. An at-home schedule which includes things like a standard bedtime, a space for your child to hang their coat and backpack, and daily playtime at home after school can help your child adjust to the school year. 

4. Encourage curiosity. Parents can also play a significant role in supporting children’s interests and academic development at home. Through daily activities like those on this list from the Mayo Clinic, parents can set their children up for success in preschool and beyond. 

OHU administrators take a unique approach to learning by tailoring each curriculum to their student’s areas of interest. Marybeth Mlikotic shared, “our teachers ask students what students would like to learn about. If children in their classroom love trains, their teacher may create a week’s lesson plan around transportation or arrange for a truck driver or fire marshal to visit the classroom. We take this approach to all learning opportunities. It’s all about encouraging a child’s natural curiosity to foster a love of learning.”  

5. Take care of yourself! OHU programs focus on important self-care items like healthy eating, exercise, and mental health. The busy back-to-school season presents both challenges and growth opportunities for children and parents. Family activities that center around things like being active, drawing, and free play can go a long way in supporting children’s mental and emotional health. And of course, self-care is important for parents too! When parents take time to take care of their health, their children are more likely to develop healthy day-to-day habits. 

Final Thoughts 

While the preschool transition may be challenging, OHU is here to help parents and children with the transition, so students have the tools they need to be happy, healthy, and successful as they return to in-person learning. Marybeth concluded, “One of the most important things parents can do to feel comfortable and set their child up for success in preschool is to be really intentional about their goals. Parents should visit the preschool or early learning center and feel that they understand the center’s policies and procedures, as well as its culture and philosophy. Parents should make sure these approaches match with what they want for their child.” 

Social-emotional skills are the foundation of preschool learning, and are key to ensuring students’ future academic success. Parents can support their children’s transition to preschool by establishing and practicing a daily school routine, and by encouraging their curiosity and interests. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has presented significant challenges in preparing children for in-person learning, communities can come together to support our youth, and ensure their future academic growth and success. 

Interested in enrolling at a One Hope United Early Learning Center? Learn more here. 

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