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Keep the Human in Human Services

June 11, 2014


Melissa Pietrkiewicz, LMSW and AmeriCorps alum

Melissa Pietrkiewicz, LMSW and AmeriCorps alum

Today’s guest post comes to us from Melissa Pietrkiewicz (AmeriCorps NCCC, Class 9). Melissa served alongside social workers in a Sacramento, CA inner city middle school and became inspired to pursue a social work career. She earned her B.S. in Social Work from Fredonia College in 2009 and her MSW from BU (University at Buffalo) School of Social Work in 2012. Melissa is now a LMSW and works as a child therapist. She also works with the Chautauqua County Department of Mental Hygiene’s Trauma Informed Care Implementation Team.

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to live anymore.” Hearing those ten words out of a twelve-year-old, I could feel the lump in my throat. I felt empty and frustrated, but for the first time in a long time, I felt alive.  I was almost halfway through my ten-month adventure in AmeriCorps NCCC in Sacramento when every single thing I thought I knew about my future and my past was wrong.

My team had been working with Social Workers in an inner city middle school.  One of our many jobs was to mentor certain students by helping them with their homework and whatever else was ailing their twelve-year-old minds at the time. How hard can it be to resolve acne and thrown out love notes?  These were the last things on their minds. Try gang violence, incarcerated family members, poverty, foster care, and wondering where their next meal was coming from.  That was their normal.  These students defined resilience and brought out a certain strength in me that I had been searching for. I did not grow up behind window bars, nor did I have to worry about drive-by shootings.  Instead, I faced different battles that left me hardened and angry, or so I thought.  One thing that felt right in the midst of my chaotic upbringing was helping people.

Going back to that day, I remember sitting outside in the California sun looking over language arts homework when the conversation between a mentee and I took an unforgettable turn.  As I sat with her, helping her transform hopelessness to happiness, I knew this is where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. At the age of 18, I was overcoming hardships of my own and knew in that moment that I was meant to be a Social Worker.

Melissa (kneeling) and her NCCC team, Blue Two, after tearing down invasive plant species along the Sacramento River

Melissa (kneeling) and her NCCC team, Blue Two, after tearing down invasive plant species along the Sacramento River

AmeriCorps opened my eyes to the hundreds of ways one can make a positive impact in the lives of others.   I learned that one of those ways was to use my own experiences to reach out to those who were facing their own struggle. Experiences shouldn’t hold you back. Instead, use them to push you through whatever it is you’re facing.  One thing that helped me grow as a human being were all the different people we met: the man ashamed to be on other side of a soup kitchen counter asking for seconds; the five-year-old boy who lived in a car, and whose smile never faded; and the fifteen-year-old in the eighth grade who was ready to take a bullet for me when our school went into a lockdown.

I also went places you don’t see on a visitor’s guide in a big city, but you should, like open air cabins in the Oregon foothills and a day shelter for the homeless, where I was lucky enough to have a cot to sleep on and feel the love from its surrounding residents.

Twelve years later, with a master’s degree in Social Work, I go back to those days quite often.  When looking into people’s eyes, you have no idea what their stories are and how their lives are changing. Now as a child therapist, I wish I could hang memories on my wall instead of diplomas. Memories where I learned what it truly meant to have empathy: to be human.

Melissa with Job Corps students at the Damon Janes Memorial Benefit (09/2013)

Melissa with Job Corps students at the Damon Janes Memorial Benefit (09/2013)

I want to share a contagious idea that was planted in my head while studying for my master’s at the University of Buffalo.  It’s called Trauma-Informed Care (pioneered by Roger D. Fallot and Maxine Harris) and is revolutionizing Social Work by taking key pieces like client/worker safety and policy change to a new level.  Trauma-Informed Care encourages reframing the relationship between Social Work providers and recipients from client to worker to human to fellow human. Understanding that it is not about what is wrong with someone, but rather understanding what an individual has survived. We cannot perceive those we serve simply as bad kids or people addicted to drugs, or ourselves as only compassion fatigued professionals. We are all human products of an experience, and it is up to us to help them heal. This notion cultivates a sense of belonging between both sides. We help them, and they help us. I was recently given the opportunity to join a team whose goal is to make my entire county’s agencies and organizations Trauma-Informed.  So often we share the same clients at one point or another, and it just makes sense to have this delivery system in place.  Our goal is to implement this culture so that workers in this field and our clients have the best outcomes possible.

Melissa hands out toys during a gift drive she organized as President of her dorm (Fredonia Migrant Head Start, NY, 12/2003)

Melissa hands out toys during a gift drive she organized as President of her dorm (Fredonia Migrant Head Start, NY, 12/2003)

In closing, I have been lucky enough to learn a great deal about this field from amazing and passionate colleagues, professors, and researchers. That being said, the true blessing is what I learned from a twelve-year-old girl who needed someone.  That someone was me, and I am forever grateful for the path she paved, because this has and will continue to be a beautiful journey. Keep the human in human service.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2014 10:49 pm

    Great article! I’m so excited to see our alumni (and Americorps alumni) making this kind of difference in people’s lives. One tiny correction to suggest to the Introduction (not the article itself) –University at Buffalo, is abbreviated UB, not BU. BU is Boston University or Binghamton University. UB is still the only MSW program that integrates trauma-informed and human rights perspectives throughout all parts of the MSW program.

  2. June 21, 2014 7:06 am

    I have felt blessed watching you go from hardened, tough-chick anger to accomplished, confident, loving therapist…though I saw her in you from day one!

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