Insight into the journey of social work
March is Social Work Month, and we are celebrating the life-altering services that social workers across the country provide. Gateway’s mission is to be a game-changer for Alabama children and families and for over 132 years our agency has been on the leading edge of helping families in our community work through challenges in order to thrive. Our amazing team of social workers is committed to keeping families safely together and assisting foster youth on their path to permanency.
This month, we’re sharing stories from our staff to highlight what it means to be in social services. Our first feature focuses on Zach Williams! Zach is Gateway’s Recruiting, Training and Licensing Manager for our Therapeutic Foster Care Program, but he has years of experience in the field. His journey into social work is unique, underscoring the various paths you can take!
Read the full interview below:
How did you decide to go into social work?
To be honest, getting into this field was accidental. My first job out of college, I spent a year as a computer programmer for UAB which was an interesting position. Obviously working with computers is a lot different than working with people. However, my undergraduate degree was in psychology with a focus on criminal justice. I thought I wanted to go into law enforcement when I was younger and just starting out, but while I was at UAB a friend of mine who knew I had a degree based in behavioral science contacted me. They were a social worker here at Gateway at the time working with the Intensive In-Home program that provides therapeutic services to keep families safely together. Though it was very different from law-enforcement, I was looking to do something that helped people. It was perfect timing as the department I was in was downsizing and I wanted to make the career shift, so I took the opportunity and became an In-Home worker here at Gateway.
I was finally putting my psychology degree to use and fell in love with social work. That was over 12 years ago and over the course of my time at Gateway I’ve worked in almost every major program at some point which has given me a unique window into the different types of services across our field. I worked with Intensive In-Home for almost 10 years and then moved to Therapeutic Foster Care as we began trying to grow the program to train and open foster homes. Working directly with foster parents has been an interesting change of pace and incredibly rewarding getting to see people start this journey knowing it gives a child a safe, stable and loving home.
What are you most passionate about?
I’m incredibly passionate about working with people. I always knew I wanted to serve others in some capacity and getting into social work wound up being the perfect fit to do that. My current role, I am teaching groups of people what it takes to be a foster parent while also leading one on one trainings. Both allow us to really connect as I get to learn about their personal experiences.
I enjoy getting to know people for who they are – what their goals are – and being part of the process in helping them reach those goals. Leading training classes, I enjoy talking to people and working with them to give new perspectives. The content can be heavy when you’re talking about children who have come from hard places so helping potential foster parents to look at things from a different perspective, to me, that is the best part of social work.
What do you feel is the biggest impact you've made as a social worker?
When I was working in In-Home, it was always a very good feeling when I was able to help keep a family together. The feeling of being able to close a case out knowing that I had a positive impact on keeping that family from being separated was incredible.
What has been most helpful to you in your career?
I’ve worked my entire career at Gateway and feel I’ve always had great supervisors. They have all been really supportive and I was able to build up those relationships. It’s important in this field to have a sounding board and I’ve always had that here. They were great advisors that have helped me develop and grow as a professional.
I would tell anybody that getting the most out of your supervisors and their expertise is key. Identifying people who are much better at the job than you to seek their counsel. It has been a great learning experience for my journey to have that in my supervisors and co-workers.
Starting out in a different field, did you have any hesitations about shifting into social work?
Not really because my degree was in behavioral sciences, so I knew I was looking for something that served others. Before coming to Gateway, I was looking for employment at the time in this field with DHR, or other organizations like it, so it was welcomed when I got the call from my friend about working with In-Home services. Through the interview process and my job search I got to learn about state DHR, how they operate, in contrast with provider agencies and the different work they do, so I got a good feel for the various areas of social work.
I was really drawn to what Gateway does as a service provider. Once I started working with In-Home, they did a great job getting us prepared for the role, giving us hands-on experience which I feel made a huge difference. It made me much more comfortable to make that shift from computer programming to social work so overall I never really had any hesitations because I felt I was prepared well for it. I would advise anyone thinking about making the shift to spend time doing the same and getting to know different organizations or aspects of the field.
What is your main goal as a social worker?
My number one goal is to help people and to be able to teach them something new. I most enjoy helping someone to understand a complex topic or to learn a skill that they weren’t able to previously do on their own. Teaching someone a helpful skillset that helps them reach their personal objectives is always my top goal. Knowing that what we are working on is going to impact their life in a positive way helps me stay focused on that goal.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of joining the field?
There are a couple of things I would say. The first is to look at what organizations have to offer and find one that provides a lot of support. It is helpful starting out if you are in a place that provides opportunities to learn that allows you to grow into a set of skills.
Also, if you are going into social work, I would advise that you go ahead and get a master's degree while you’re still in school. It really helps you in the long run and gives an added layer of skills to help both you and your clients.