City supports social-work programs

Less than a year after former Mayor Mike McGinn announced an increase in resources for city-funded senior centers, Wallingford Community Senior Center launched its first social worker program.

From connecting seniors to assistance programs, to fostering communication with families, to leading tailored support groups and instructional workshops, WCSC Social Worker Sarah Frey and her colleagues throughout the Seattle area provide essential support to a rapidly growing elderly population.

But it wasn’t until WCSC received the $20,000 subsidy in 2013 that it was able to provide its members with what some now view as an invaluable service.

“Having a social worker in general has changed our entire outlook. We’ve moved our outreach toward being about relationships, rather than just being reactive,” said Lara Okoloko, the Community Engagement Strategist for WCSC.

For example, nationally, about two-thirds of eligible seniors do not sign up for food benefits, Okoloko said. Instead of simply informing seniors about the availability of food benefits, insights from the social worker program led WCSC to adapt its own lunch program to be more accessible—the Center now accepts food benefits as payment for lunches.

Happy Hour

Andy Smallman, Co-Founder of the Puget Sound Community School, facilitates Happy Hour, a social worker created program. Happy Hour explores finding joy in your life; this session focused on kindness.

Okoloko joined the WCSC staff in May 2013 as the Center’s first official social worker and has since helped to grow the program by bringing in Master of Social Work student interns, and by adapting her own role to focus on big-picture strategies.

“It’s really helped us to bring an important lens to our program planning, to be really thoughtful about figuring out people’s needs and how we can best meet them,” Okoloko said.

WCSC isn’t the only center to benefit from the additional funding. According to Frey, each of the city-funded senior centers received enough support to provide at least 10 to 12 hours of social work each week. Most centers used the funds to augment existing or previously canceled programs.

“When I started [at Greenwood Senior Center], it was pretty clear that Karen [Greenwood Senior Center’s Social Worker] was at the heart of what we [were] providing and what we should be providing,” said Cecily Kaplan, Director of Greenwood Senior Center.

“Every year we were in the situation of having to look at [the social work program] and think about decreasing those hours.  [City funding] allowed Greenwood to move the program from a loss … and make a leap in our memory-loss program, which Karen oversees.  [The funding is] very important to us,” Kaplan added.

Frey estimates that she’s worked with about 35 individuals and families since she started at WCSC this July, and she anticipates the program will grow.

“I try to normalize talking with me, like it’s not a big deal; you can talk about nothing if you want,” Frey said. “That seems to have helped people get used to the idea.” Then, when they realize they do have a question or problem, they’re more comfortable approaching her for support.

While many of Frey’s cases are one-off meetings, consisting primarily of providing information or connecting clients with experts in specific fields, some are ongoing, requiring regular check-ins. In fact, Frey said she never stops following up with her clients until she’s positive their issue has been resolved or they’ve made connections with experts who can help meet their needs.

Frey’s dedication is not uncommon. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts at various levels over the years, many social service agencies were forced to limit their program offerings.

“When I started back in 2000, we had social workers at each of our centers,” said Joanne Donohue, Vice President of Community Development at Senior Services, a nonprofit supporting several senior centers in the Greater Seattle Area. “After budget reductions, about half of our centers were able to raise their own money to pay for a social worker; the other half had to lay off their social workers until the City came through with this funding.”

Still, with the funding boost, the need always seems greater than the capacity to deliver service, because the programs have already become so integral to the communities, Donohue said.

“We kind of go year to year, not really knowing for sure about our funding,” she said. “But we believe having social workers in the communities where people know and trust them—versus sending them out case by case from a central location—is a really good model and a successful strategy.”

Now, as WCSC prepares to respond to the City’s newest request for proposals for next year’s funding, Frey and Okoloko are continuing to assess their program’s impact, and are encouraged by the potential to reach some of North Seattle’s most vulnerable members.

“We’re really hoping to collaborate with the Seattle Housing Authority, to figure out how to get programs to people in senior housing,” said Frey. “We’re definitely laying the groundwork for more partnerships.”