From the Pen of the President: February 2020
NASW-Illinois Chapter President Grisel Rodríguez-Morales, MSW, LCSW
I hope I’m not alone in this, but I’m ready to not only celebrate NASW’s sixty-fifth anniversary this year but also Social Work Month next month. I’m feeling motivated and encouraged about our profession, and I’d like to tell you about a recent experience that has made me think deeply about the power of community, coalition-building, and, undoubtedly, social work.
It was 4:24am on January 7, 2020, on the northern coast of Puerto Rico when I woke up to my bed, the nightstand, the ceiling fan, and basically everything around me forcibly shaking. I grabbed my husband’s arm in panic, and sort of hoped the gesture would stop the movement. Almost immediately we heard our daughter calling our younger son with a sense of urgency and providing some type of instructions. We immediately knew that we were dealing with an earthquake—not only because of the tremor, but also because just the day before, a 5.8-magnitude quake struck the island and governmental authorities had announced that more earthquakes were possible. In fact, since December 28, 2019, a series of earthquakes had been registered on the island, although only just a couple had been noticeable to the public. It was day 12 of our vacation in Puerto Rico and after many wonderful celebrations with extended family and friends when we suddenly found ourselves shaken and questioning what to do next. There was no electricity. There was a brief tsunami warning. There were three smaller earthquakes that morning. It was a bit chaotic. Only one thing was almost certain, and it was our returning flight to the mainland which was scheduled for later that day. Although dozens of text messages and calls assured me that extended family were safe, including elders who needed support or at least company during projected aftershocks, you cannot imagine how disheartening it was to continue our travel plans while leaving siblings, parents, and other beloved family members behind.
I’m still distraught by the dreadful situation that many of my fellow Puerto Ricans are living. I’m similarly encouraged and proud to see many others determined to overcome the existing difficulties, especially by providing help to those now in shelters and unable to return to their homes. By closely following the news and through frequent calls and messages to family, I’ve been amazed by the resiliency as well as the humanity people are demonstrating. I’m inspired by the individuals and social service organizations swiftly helping and removing bureaucratic processes that at times delay much needed help. Mainland organizations have also offered to help, including groups in Illinois coming together, joining forces, or building coalitions with the main purpose of providing people with at least the most basic necessities! Then there are the mental health professionals, including licensed clinical social workers, who have been consistently assisting those experiencing anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Social workers are uniquely positioned to provide psychoeducation, resources, and referrals to disaster survivors of all ages. In Puerto Rico, a great number of those affected by these earthquakes are older adults. Since older adults are at a high risk of developing physical and psychological issues during and post a natural disaster, the need for geriatric social workers is undeniable. As Sanders and colleagues put it in a 2008 article exploring the needs of older adult public housing residents who experienced forced relocation during and after the 1992 Hurricane Andrew in Miami-Dade County, social workers are able to assist in addressing much of the trauma that can occur in the aftermath of a disaster, such as losing one’s home, possessions, and even family members and friends. Social workers accomplish this through psychotherapy, crisis intervention, advocacy, and community referrals.
Though natural disasters are unpredictable, it’s reassuring to know that social workers can effectively respond to the physical, social, and mental health needs of individuals and families affected by the trauma of these disasters. I’ve seen several interviews in the last few weeks where colleagues on the island are arduously working to ensure people’s wellbeing. So, with high hopes for my country and full of pride for social work, I’m prepared to celebrate our profession—not only next month, but throughout the year!