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Time To Celebrate Our Social Workers!

Silver Hill Hospital

March is National Social Work Month, a time to recognize social workers for the essential work they do to make the world a better place. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is leading the celebration with the theme “Social Workers: Generation Strong.”

Silver Hill has social workers from five generations, from the Silent Generation to Gen Z and everything in between. Silver Hill also has a few social workers who followed the path to this noble profession by walking in the footsteps of previous generation family members.

At Silver Hill, social workers play an integral role in a patient’s recovery. They are key members of a patient’s multi-disciplinary treatment team, along with a psychiatrist and nurse. Silver Hill has more than 100 social workers (full-time and per diem) who perform a variety of clinical, managerial and administrative functions. At Silver Hill, social workers are group therapy leaders, directors, residential counselors (RCs), interns, and much more.

“If you were to look around at our weekly social work meeting you’d see all generations represented,” says Jane Duncan, Director of Social Work at Silver Hill.

According to the NASW, social workers account for the largest group of mental health providers in the U.S.

Here is a closer look at some of Silver Hill Hospital’s social workers through the lens of “Social Workers: Generations Strong.”

Alexa Pazniokas,
a Millennial, never met her great grandmother Lillie, but they are forever bonded by a passion for helping others through social work. Lillie’s path to social work was hardly a straight line, especially considering it was the 1940s. Her children were grown, she was recently divorced and World War II raged on.

In 1944, Lillie was too old by a few years to join the military, but she used someone else’s birth certificate to enlist in the Army. She spent the next 18 years working as a social worker in the Army, according to a biography written by her son (Alexa’s grandfather). Lillie served in Japan during World War II and made it to the rank of sergeant.

“It’s amazing for that generation, in my mind, to be a female and be serving in the military and making a career for herself. I’ve had strong women role models,” Alexa says, noting that her mother also has a successful career.

Her grandfather was also the president of the board of a therapy center in the Bronx.

Alexa is the Director of Residential and Wellness Programming at Silver Hill. She started as a Residential Counselor in 2015 and worked her way up to her current role.

“Silver Hill is a place you can build your career. It’s a nice fit for my interest and skill set,” she says of her new position. “There are so many opportunities. A lot of people start as a gym attendant or volunteer here and meet role models and get into social work. If you want to have a life-long career here, you could.”

Alexa took on volunteer roles such as Special Olympics helper and SAT tutor for inner-city teens during her high school and college days.

“I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed working with people and forming relationships.”

Sandra Benti of the Silent Generation is one of Silver Hill’s longest-serving social workers. After working in places such as the McCall Foundation in Torrington and Eagle Hill in Newtown, Sandra came to Silver Hill in 2001. She recalls that her interview was originally scheduled for Sept. 11 but was postponed several weeks because of the tragic events that transpired that morning.

Working under then-President and Medical Director Richard Frances, Sandra was assigned as the outpatient social worker when Silver Hill started that program. A few years later, she helped to develop Silver Hill’s Transitional Living Program (TLP) with Janet Isdaner and others. Sandra is now a senior social worker leading group sessions at Silver Hill’s Acute Care Unit. Jane Duncan and Brad Bloom are the other senior social workers at Silver Hill.

“It’s fun to see how the hospital has changed over time,” Sandra says.

She has seen a lot in her long career of helping others. Sandra shakes off the tough days and reminds herself why she became a social worker.

“Hope and change is so possible,” she says. “I like to be part of that and encourage people to get better. That’s the bottom line: Because people can get better.”

Claire Cunningham, 23, is a member of Generation Z, those born in 1996 or later. She is an MSW intern from Columbia University School of Social Work and per diem residential counselor at Silver Hill. For her internship, she is at Silver Hill three days a week until she receives her Master of Social Work in May.

Claire was inspired by her aunt to enter the social work field. Her aunt, Heidi Cunningham, worked at Silver Hill from 2005 to 2011, and was the Transitional Living Program Coordinator. Heidi also received her MSW from Columbia.

“She was like my best friend growing up,” Claire says. “At Christmas, I would hear her talking about her job and it was always something that intrigued me. I think I ended up here because of her. Silver Hill has always been on my radar.”

Claire said an AP psychology course she took during her high school days at Pleasantville High School solidified her desire to be a social worker in the mental health field.

As an intern, Claire works one to one with clients doing DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), running psychoeducation and process groups, and individual therapy under the supervision of Jane Duncan, LCSW.

“I feel that Silver Hill is a perfect place to have a career because you learn so much here,” Claire says. “My goal is to eventually get my doctorate, hopefully in social work, and be able to continue to help people on a daily basis.”

Claire is polite, communicative, amicable and wants to help others – contradicting the stereotypes many people have about our youngest generation. In fact, she takes bullying and flips it on its head.

“I’ve seen bullying a lot so makes me more apt to want to be the good person,” Claire says. “One good deed can lead to another good deed. I try to do one good thing a day. Even if it’s a little thing. I believe that putting good out into the world will help others. I don’t think everyone thinks that way.”

Kristy Rancourt of the Millennial Generation (also known as Gen Y) followed in the footsteps of her father and stepmother by becoming a social worker. Her dad and stepmom met at Western Connecticut State University and each went on to earn MSWs at Fordham. Kristy took the same route, attending WCSU and Fordham before becoming a social worker. She has been at Silver Hill since 2015.

When she was younger her father would take her and her brother along on the volunteer activities he was working on for his social work studies. This included visits to local food pantries, street clean-ups and medication runs.

“He was always having us really involved and giving back to the community in different ways,” Kristy recalls.

In regards to her father’s social work, Kristy remembers seeing both sides of the profession.

“My dad used to work with juveniles and I saw how it could be fun, but also at times heart-wrenching,” Kristy says. “Then you see the progress and how they can come out on the other side. I saw how he gravitated toward their future projections, which was really cool to see. He liked to talk about it.”

Her stepmother found a similar passion working with women and children.

“She was so passionate about it and advocated for people,” Kristy recalls. “I thought that was really cool.”

Kristy found her niche with DBT and working with patients with eating disorders. She runs the outpatient DBT program and also works with some patients at River House.

“I really like DBT. It just flows naturally for me,” she says. “You can have a sense of humor and also encourage people to express their emotions, especially anger. It’s so important. So many people think you aren’t allowed to express anger and so much comes of it. One of my patients who just left told me: ‘I don’t know how I got through my entire life thinking that I couldn’t be angry. You finally gave me permission. You don’t know how much that’s opened up.’

“You don’t have to be explosive, but you can acknowledge it,” Kristy says about emotions.

Kristy enjoys working with the other Silver Hill social workers, from the experienced professionals to the interns. She tries to pass on to the interns what she has learned from the other social workers at Silver Hill.

“It’s fun to show them that there is no one way to do things,” Kristy says. “You can be unique in this field. I can run a group one way and somebody else will run it a different way. There’s not a right or wrong.”

Wallace Stacy, who has been at Silver Hill for more than 10 years, is a Gen Xer and was inspired by his father to get into social work. His father, now 85, was an orphan when his parents died at a young age. He was adopted by a rural doctor and helped out at the small office. Wallace’s father later joined the Air Force and voluntarily did three tours in Vietnam as a medic. He eventually became an administrator at military hospitals.

Wallace recalls a time when one of his friends fell off a bicycle. Wallace, using supplies from his father’s military med kit at home, patched up his friend. He knew from that time he wanted to get into the medical field.

While in pre-med, he worked at a nursing home to get experience in the health field.

“I found that just sitting there and having the residents tell me their story was a big help to them. I didn’t say much at all; I just listened to them,” Wallace says. “But their whole mood would change just by having me listen to them. It was so uplifting just being an ear for them. Then I decided that I didn’t want to do direct care but rather therapy or social services.”

Wallace grew up in the South and moved up north more than 20 years ago. He received his master’s in social work from Fordham and went to work for an outpatient program in Westchester. It was not a good match, he recalls.

“My ideas and theirs just did not jive. I was supremely worried about people and thought some people needed more intervention than they were getting. We just clashed,” he said. “Then I came over to Silver Hill and, much to my surprise, my ideas were not ridiculous. My ideas about how to help people were good ideas. From day one here, my ideas have been supported. The education I’ve gotten here from working with people like Dr. (Rocco) Marotta and the other clinicians has been absolutely invaluable. I continue to get nourished and learn new things that makes me more effective in working with people.”

Jane Duncan, of the Baby Boomer Generation, is the Director of Social Work at Silver Hill. She started at Silver Hill as an intern just eight years ago. She became an acute care social worker and later the TLP coordinator. She was a group leader in the DBT Intensive Outpatient Program and had a caseload in the Dual and DBT Transitional Living Program before becoming the interim director of social work and now the director.

“One of the beautiful things about Silver Hill is there are a lot of growth opportunities for people who are willing to work hard — Silver Hill and my skill set were a good match,” says Jane. “My husband and I raised our family in New Canaan and I always knew I wanted to work at Silver Hill because my career interests lined up perfectly with Silver Hill’s mission.”

Jane received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Iowa before embarking on a successful sales career with Xerox. She returned to school to earn her LCSW from Fordham University in 2012.

“One of the reasons I went into social work is because I love to find resources and solve problems. That’s just the way my brain works,” she says. “I think the key to being a good social worker starts with establishing a trusting relationship and getting to know what a patient wants from life. Exploring a patient’s strengths and sense of self is key to developing effective treatment interventions.”

“We see so much misery and suffering when people come in. They are in crisis. They don’t feel good physically, especially if there is an addiction. With mental health problems, they also aren’t feeling well physically, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically,” says Jane. “After being with us for 28 days, they are feeling better physically, they’re eating healthy meals, their sleep schedule has been re-established, and they have had human contact to feel connected to others and more connected to themselves.

“Their treatment isn’t over when they leave us; it’s really just begun,” she adds. “As a DBT therapist, the real goal is to create a life worth living because if you create a life that you enjoy and feel is worth living, that helps reduce suicidality. We use that across the board to instill in somebody hope for life in a different way – a way that’s going to be more effective for them when they leave here.”

Lisa Benton is Silver Hill’s Chief Quality Officer and the hospital’s longest-tenured social worker. A Baby Boomer, she started in 1998 and has seen Silver Hill evolve from a facility focused primarily on inpatient services to one that offers services across the continuum. Also, the regulatory environment has greatly changed the business of running a hospital, she says.

“But the most important things haven’t changed.  We are still a community of caring, for our patients and for each other. It still feels like family,” Lisa says. “It still feels very special and unique. It always did and still does.”

Similar to many others at Silver Hill, Lisa worked her way up the ranks at the hospital. She started as an intern and worked as an inpatient floor social worker, TLP social worker, and outpatient social worker. She ran River House and then oversaw the 35-person group therapy department. When that department was dissolved, she assumed her current leadership position.

“Social work prepared me to do direct work with patients. It prepared me to supervise and oversee a group of clinicians, and it prepared me to work in administration,” Lisa says. “My clinical training very much informs my work to this day. That’s why social work appealed to me because it prepares you for such a breadth of opportunity. Social work, as a career, gives you great latitude to do good work in many different spheres.”

Richard Juliana, Silver Hill’s Director of Human Resources, also has a social work degree.

“Rich went into social work and his avenue took him into HR,” Lisa says. “He’s another example of how it can take you anywhere.”

Having served in various capacities as a social worker at Silver Hill, Lisa knows how important the role of a social worker is at the hospital.

“Social workers are the backbone, in many ways,” she says. “I think of them as the organizers of care in a lot of ways — an air-traffic controller, but with a clinical heart. They are unfailingly hard working in a job that is hugely demanding. And they’re often unsung.  That is why Social Work month is so important – it is a time to recognize this amazing group of individuals and the outstanding contribution they make to our Hospital.”

Social Work Month Facts

  • There are more than 700,000 social workers in the U.S.
  • Social work is a fast-growing field with 11 percent growth expected over the next decade
  • Social workers account for the largest group of mental health care providers in the U.S.
  • National Social Work Month was first organized in March of 1963 by National Association of Social Workers.
  • The White House officially recognized March as National Professional Social Work Month in 1984.

Source: National Association of Social Workers