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After initially wanting to become a lawyer Cherilynn Veland had a change of heart when she witnessed a man in court struggling to pay his legal fees. This was the catalyst for Cherilynn Veland to go on and become a Social Worker, walking alongside those that can fall through the cracks of society and being a comforting companion to those in need. Cherliynn has gone on to have an extensive career working with victimized women and children and going on to provide crisis management for bereaved witnesses.
A social workers role is to work with people who have been socially excluded or who are experiencing crisis in their lives. The nature of being a social worker calls for an intensely compassionate character, a person who walks with those on the brink and going through difficult times and becomes their guide, advocate and friend. The range of people helped by social workers is extensive, whether they're young offenders, people with mental health issues, homeless or elderly. There is no limit to a social workers work and no vulnerable person that can't be cared for by them.
How did you first become interested in social work as a career? Was there a seminal moment that made you realize social work is what you wanted to do or was the process more gradual and natural?
I started out wanting to become a lawyer. Therefore, I worked part-time for a lawyer as a runner while in high school. One day, a man came to the office to pay a portion of his bill. It was obvious from his appearance that he was extremely poor, and had walked a long way in the heat because he had no vehicle. I could tell from his speech that he was uneducated. Being a poor black man having grown up in the deep South, clearly put him at a disadvantage. Seeing him stand there and peel off hard earned dollar bills to pay a smidgeon of the bill he owed the attorneys for representing him; threw at me an overwhelming sense that just providing him legal services wasn’t really helping him with the root of his problems.
I decided right there that I wanted to do more for people and help them in a different way. I wasn’t aware of social work being an option at that time. So, I took courses in political science, psychology, and eventually a 101 course in social work. I was lucky to choose a college that had an accredited undergraduate and graduate social work department at that time.
You have a ton of awesome work experience and we want to try and dive into all of it. Your first few jobs were all helping traumatized or troubled youth or women. What attracted you to those groups? Tell me about some of the issues these patients had? What were some of the pros and cons? How hard is it not to take your work home with you in that environment? How hard is it not to burn out or immediately get exhausted?
I was always interested in helping those that were victimized. Victimized women and children in the deep South seemed like a very good place to start. My goal was to help and empower them. In Alabama, the issues that I worked with were: extreme poverty, severe physical and emotional abuse, lack of education, lack of access to healthy services, and the list goes on and on. I interacted and attempted to teach women and children who had never been exposed to healthy concepts of child rearing or relationships. They didn’t even know what self esteem was.
This fascinated me and motivated me.
It seemed worthwhile to help those who were probably in most need- at least I believed them to be in the most need at the time. Then, I moved to Chicago and worked with emotionally ill and abused/neglected children. This was all very tough work. Eventually, I began working more with adults because the helplessness I felt in working with disturbed kids got to be too much after a while. It was hard not to burn out. I think all graduate schools in social work should have a class specifically for that. Most important in not burning out, is doing powerful work within yourself on your own psychological issues, motivations, etc.
At some point it seems like you switched into a more corporate role providing wellness services and working as an account manager for an EAP. Why did you make the switch into that role? What were some of the best and worst parts about the change? What did you learn about the industry you didn’t know before?
I switched into corporate because I was interested in doing more psychoeducation. I was ready to do some work with the “wounded well”. In addition, I began enjoying working with addiction issues. The change was good. It was much easier in this environment not to “burn out”. I enjoyed the challenge of practicing other skills like public speaking and training program implementation and development.
Providing crisis management work for bereaved witnesses sounds like difficult yet fascinating work. Tell us a little bit about that experience? What sort of treatment and support did you provide? How were you able to reach these people without any experience with what happened to them?
Well, this is work I did while at the EAP. We had several incidents where companies we worked for would have a violent accident, or a suicide and people were exposed to this. For example, a department had had someone kill themselves and some of the employees discovered the body. Or, a construction project went awry and someone was killed in front of their peers. These were usually very violent incidents.
Additionally, after September 11th, I was called in to help a department who had been in the financial district and had to “escape” when the twin towers fell. My job was to come in and try to mitigate some of the trauma, get people to talk about it, and educate them what they can do to recover. It felt good to guide people toward resolution. I am now certified in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). It is incredibly helpful for individuals who struggle with trauma and you see quick results. I wish I had known about this then.
It seems like a lot of the time you took on some seriously difficult jobs working with seriously ill, traumatized, or troubled patients. Was that on purpose? What was it about you and your personality that made you want to work in such a difficult environment working on such serious and drastic cases? How were you able to keep from getting burned out or disenchanted with the work? What are some of the rewards you personally get from working with people like that?
Yes. I have always worked with trauma. My personality is one that likes challenge and loves to help others. My mother was a special ed teacher and later went on to be a therapist who worked with abused and neglected children. I have a generational background of this “serve” and “helping others” value. This has a religious basis. I have a lot of teachers, ministers, and family who do a tremendous amount of mission work: my brother is an assistant principle who works with court involved juveniles ;another brother has done mission work in Ruwanda; an aunt just got back from dedicating an orphanage in Africa that she helped fund. The list here is not comprehensive of the involvement of my family and extended family in service related endeavors. It is a value that we have and something we enjoy, I guess.
I got burned out much more easily in the beginning of my career. However, my world view and orientation has shifted so much since then. I think I could do the same jobs now and not get nearly as stressed…For the most part, seeing positive movement in people and within their lives is much more fulfilling than the stress that comes with the process of them getting there. Most importantly, my spiritual beliefs are the sustaining force behind all of this work. I usually keep quiet about that with clients, for obvious reasons.
I want to backtrack and talk about your education a little bit. Where did you go for your advanced degrees? What was the route you took? What did you like and dislike about the formal education in social work? What are some of the things you learned in school that you still use in your work today? How important was what you learned in school in helping shape your career and you as a professional?
I went to University of Alabama. As I stated earlier, I was lucky that the university I chose had an accredited and well established social work department. I went ahead and obtained my MSW after interviewing people in established careers. It was recommended to me over and over to go ahead and get my master’s immediately. In addition, I needed to work after college so I found a position as the Children’s Services Coordinator at a domestic violence and sexual assault agency in the area. I was able to work and attend graduate school.
I know that the most important thing I gained from school was being surrounded by like-minded people. Having been raised in Alabama, prior to being in the social work department, I was unable to interact with anyone that believed that people were partially a product of the system in which they were exposed to. Most of my peers had a very individualistic world view and did not see the importance of looking at people and people’s choices in the context of culture, minority status, gender, education, etc. Or, at least that is something that most of my peers were not that interested in. I enjoyed the stimulation of exploring these issues with others.
You recently wrote or are in the process of writing a book. What inspired that decision? What do you hope to accomplish or what is your goal for this book? What were some of the things you quickly learned about writing a book? Talk about what you learned from the process in general like what you enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about writing it and some of the real obstacles you had to overcome?
I was simply inspired to write the book and decided to do so. It is a book that is a sociocultural exploration of self-sacrifice and women, as well as a self-help book on how to “correct” that. I would like to get it published and into the hands of many women. Eventually, I would like to publish one that focuses on men too. However, there are different cultural influences for males. I thought they needed separate books.
I have learned so much. I have had to research and interview others about the publishing process and am developing a platform. I have had excellent feedback from several New York agents, but this is now a society of celebrity. What I have learned is, you can have a good product, but you are responsible for pitching it. “Pitching” ideas is not something I am good at or comfortable with- yet.
Eventually you moved to your current role, which is running a private practice in Chicago. What sort of patients do you work with in your practice? Why did you decide to start your own private practice? What are responsibilities now versus before? What are some of the major differences? Are there pros and cons to the work?
I decided to do private practice for practicality. I have two children and it works well with my schedule. I have learned to run my own business so that is rewarding. In addition, it is so rewarding seeing patients who want help, get better, and grow and change. It is a bonus that they appreciate the help.
What sort of advice or suggestions do you have for students interested in following in your career path or looking to get started as a social worker? Is there anything they should know as they start the process?
Wow. I am so grateful I found the right degree for having such wonderful experiences. I would recommend them just moving towards populations and types of work that interests them.
I would love to develop a class for new grads. In it, I would include some topics like:
1. Not expecting appreciation or major changes in the people you are trying so hard to help .It is the lack of expectation that helps your work become more rich. Conversely, that is what motivates people to change more readily. (And, that is what helps them appreciate you. )
2. The need to control. - I have found a lot of social workers come from families where this control issue reemerges in the field in very dysfunctional ways.
3. Loving, helpful detachment.
4.Self -care: emotional, spiritual, and physical
Learn more about Cherilynn, by visiting her blog at www.stopgivingitaway.com.
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