When I decided to go to school for social work, I had no idea what that really meant for me.  I knew that I wanted to help people and I knew social workers helped people.  When I first told my parents I wanted to become a social worker, I was in the 7th grade.  I remember it vividly, we were sitting around the kitchen table at dinner.  Halfway through our meal, I announced “I figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a social worker.” 

Well, I didn’t get quite the response I thought I would get.  I was hoping for words of encouragement and “way to go!”  Instead my parents laughed hysterically.  “You won’t make money as a social worker.”  Why don’t you go into physical therapy or nursing (a typical Filipina profession)?”  Being a young and impressionable pre-teen, I thought “Yeah, my parents must be right.” So throughout high school and my first few years of college, I decided I was going into medicine.  I realized halfway through my sophomore year at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, that a career in medicine was not right for me.  I was also struggling with organic chemistry and that was probably my main reason for switching majors.

I spent most of my sophomore year of college in limbo.  I had no idea what I wanted to do in life.  I spent a lot of time stressing and contemplating  my future.  One day it dawned on me, I recalled the day I told my parents I wanted to become a social worker and decided I needed to look into it.  As I researched the requirements and the future career paths I could take in social work, I knew that becoming a social worker was my calling in life.  

While at Creighton, I worked at The Salvation Army in their Temporary Crisis Program (TCP), a shelter program for adults diagnosed with a mental illness but working to manage their illness and move on with their lives.  After two weeks of working at TCP, the Case Manager told me that I could do my first intake.  My first client was a 23 year old male diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I wasn’t nervous about meeting with this individual.  I was more nervous about missing items on the intake checklist.  But everything went fine.  He told me that he had a strained relationship with his parent, but was determined to rise above it and move on with his life.  We talked about his plan to secure housing and find a job.  I directed him to different resources to help him manage his mental illness.   I left the meeting feeling confident he knew his next steps.  He even told me that he felt optimistic about his future.

But something happened between the time I left my shift that night to the next day.  As I punched in for my shift, I was called into the Case Manager’s Office.  I thought that I was in deep trouble.  In her office was the Clinical Specialist along with the Social Services Director for the Division.  I thought at that point that I had really screwed something up.  They told me that they received a phone call from the police department and my client had passed away. 

He had left his day program early and went to his parent’s house.  The news reported that  he was smoking a cigarette while filling the gas tank of his parent’s lawn mower and lit himself on fire.  The medical examiner ruled it as an accidental death.  But I know deep down, that it wasn’t an accident and to this day I believe he killed himself.

There was no reason for him to be at his parent’s house, especially with their tense relationship.  In addition, he was suppose to be in day program the whole day.  I also read his case notes for that morning,  he reported having “racing thoughts.”  I know in my gut that this was no accident.  I learned early in that job, when someone wants to end their life, they will do anything they can to do it. 

When I took the job at The Salvation Army, I was only 19 years old.  In that office, I wanted to breakdown and cry.  I was horrified at the fact that someone could do this to themselves.    I didn’t shed a tear as I worked my eight hour shift.   I felt that I needed to be strong.  I thought, “Horrible things like that happen all the time and I need to get use to it as a social worker.”  However, once I left work that night and got in my car, I balled my eyes out.  At that point, I questioned my decision to pursue social work. 

The week to follow was especially hard.  I went to church that Sunday and found out our priest was the Fire Department’s Chaplain and he went to comfort my client’s family.  He spoke about it in his homily.   His death even made the state section of the USA Today.  I felt like it was haunting me.  Despite this, I continued to go to work and helped my other clients with their goals.  They were working their plans–finding jobs, housing, and getting proper treatment for their mental health.  I knew I was on the right track.

Good things and bad things happen in life all the time, but I know that when bad things happen the most important part is having support to overcome it.  By becoming a social worker, I could be support for other people who needed it.  As sad as it made me to know that I couldn’t help my client, I knew that this was a situation that was beyond my control.  To deal with real human issues whether good or bad is the essence of what social workers do and I’m proud to be one of them.