How Being the Difference Makes the Difference to Me

A Social Worker’s Story
Kaitie Cruse, Social Worker for FCNI
March, 16, 2015

For me, all that is worthy in the world begins with families who function holistically—loving families who raise healthy children. In contrast, all that is awry in the world begins with families who lack the skills or resources to find wellness and struggle to meet each other’s needs, especially the needs of their children. Through my journey, I found Social Work to be the most effective and meaningful path by which I could support and empower at-risk and high-needs families; it is the role that is most authentic to who I am and what I value. Social Workers look at individuals in their environmental context, advocate for change at all levels of their person and environment, and walk alongside them in their process. We also uphold the mandate to see the dignity and worth of all individuals, especially those who are typically marginalized and stigmatized. We empower people to find recovery and wellness using their strengths and self-determination.

My journey to social work began at birth, or maybe even from the idea of me in my parents’ minds. My mom is a teacher who has always had the heart of a social worker with her students and families, and my dad is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has greatly influenced my interest and aptitude for this field. I came to this career driven by a genuine desire to understand people and from having a deep empathy for helping. I was raised to think like a Social Worker, and lived a life that created a heart for this work.

There is a significant legacy in my family of the struggles that trauma and mental illness can bring, as well as the resiliency and recovery possible when meaningfully pursued. My mom recovered from a mental health crisis when I was young, and brought herself and our family to a whole new level of wellness. As a child and adolescent, I struggled at times with my own mental health and family stressors. But, my odd, imperfect, beautiful, brave family is an example to me of what it means to heal and to put kids first. My mom and dad worked hard as individuals and parents. Even through divorce, fifteen years of two single-parent homes, and eventually remarriage and a new addition, my parents and later my step-mom (also a Social Worker) always sacrificed and adjusted in order to create a unified family with their children at the center. My family has always defined and operated itself uniquely, openly violating cultural norms about how divorced and step-families can and should behave—and I am thankful for that. The core of my character and the impetus for my career in the helping field is shaped both by the traumas and challenges we faced and the outcome we created.

Certain that I wanted a career in the helping field, I studied Psychology at Cal Poly, SLO. My path became solidified when I interned at Family Care Network and eventually worked there for two and a half years as an In-Home Counselor (and too many other roles to list) working with amazing biological and foster families. I was oriented to the power of strength-based, community-based and family-centered services, and witnessed the amazing resiliency of children and families impacted by trauma, mental illness and out-of-home placement. I was assured that both my aptitude and my purpose lied in Social Work focusing on mental health, therapeutic foster placements and, ultimately, recovery for families.

I got my Masters in Social Work at UCLA because I wanted an adventure and to fully immerse myself in an intense learning environment and intimate experience of personal growth and professional development. I honed my skills, fostered old and new passions, and expanded my whole perception of what it means to be a Social Worker—from clinician to social justice advocate. While working with new and diverse populations—most notably, my year with residents of Skid Row who faced addiction, mental illness, homelessness and chronic involvement with the criminal justice system—I discovered the breadth of my capacity for Social Work. But my deepest heart still remained with abused, traumatized and displaced kids, youth and families. So, after returning to life on the Central Coast, I also returned to the same agency that had raised me in this field.

For me, there is an unparalleled challenge, joy and privilege in the work I do. Every day I am humbled by the trials and successes of my clients. Social Work is also a gift for someone like me who wants to continuously grow and learn - you cannot rest on your laurels in this field. As much as I am teaching my clients and helping them on their journey, they are always forcing me to learn, process, discover and heal in my own life and relationships, as well as teaching me how to improve my craft. Though this work can be painful, exhausting and frustrating, when I re-center myself I am reminded how invigorating and inspiring it is. The most beautiful part of this work is that I get to build therapeutic relationships and genuine working alliances with the children and families I serve; and these relationships are not one sided, they are as real and meaningful to me as I hope they are to them.

I believe everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the greater good and that everything we do and the way we do it has a tangible effect on our environment. My work gives purpose and meaning, both to my career and to the framework for how I conduct myself in my personal and daily life.