In 1970, the first graduating class of Sheridan’s Social Service Worker program – all 17 of them – set out to make a difference in their communities. Forty-five years later, that first group is part of over 4,700 social service worker alumni who have impacted the lives of people across the GTA and beyond. Among them are Karen Bridgman-Acker, pictured above left, and Cheryl Robinson, pictured above right. Since the inception of the program, hundreds of organizations have turned to Sheridan students and graduates to help them provide the support and services so crucial to the health of our communities. Now numbering more than 950, this network of community partners is a cornerstone of the social service worker program (SSW), offering placements to students as part of their education.
Sheridan’s social service worker program has more than 950 community partners.
What’s more, many of these students are impressive enough to land employment with their placement organization following graduation. At the Alzheimer’s Society of Peel alone, 60% of its employees are Sheridan graduates. One reason for such success: the calibre and commitment of program faculty. “Employing quality instructors who are able to train students for this field is a big part of it. The people I know who teach at Sheridan are exceptional,” said Scott Brooker, Executive Director of Friends & Advocates Peel, who recently hired two Sheridan alumni and one soon-to-be graduate.
With such strong community connections, little wonder that the SSW program is the largest in Ontario with the highest number of applicants (2,200 in 2014-15). “The SSW program prepares students to support and advocate for the diverse needs of individuals, families, groups and communities to promote inclusive services and effect social change,” said Program Coordinator, Nicole Johnson. “Every day they bear witness to stories of struggle, trauma and oppression and provide a supportive listening ear,” she added. “We are so proud of our graduates and for their contributions to creating healthier, safer and more inclusive communities.”
That pride was fully evident at the reunion on campus in March 2015 which saw alumni, faculty, former faculty and students gather to mark the SSW program’s 45-year legacy.
Among those alumni who revisited the campus to celebrate were Karen Bridgman-Acker and Cheryl Robinson. Although they graduated 28 years apart, they share a desire to enhance the lives of society’s most vulnerable members.
Read their stories below.
When Career and Passion Meet
“Sheridan was a great starting point,” said 1986 graduate, Karen Bridgman-Acker, who has built a career protecting the welfare of children and families. “It helped me discover and nurture my passion for social justice for vulnerable populations.”
Since 1990, she has worked with the Hamilton Children’s Aid Society and Catholic Children’s Aid Society in front line and supervisory positions. She also spent eight years as a Child Welfare Specialist in the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario. In private practice since 2014, Bridgman-Acker now counsels people and families in times of conflict, and assists organizations with investigations and reviews.
“We can make a difference. I've seen it and that is the most gratifying aspect of my work.”
It is a challenging field but a satisfying one, says Bridgman-Acker, pointing to her role in the Office of Chief Coroner as a case in point. “I found the biggest reward in the preventative role we played. We focused on finding out what agencies as a whole could do differently to prevent the death of a child in the future.” As well, “It was my dream job to combine social work with my interest in forensics,” added Bridgman-Acker who also holds a Bachelor of Social Work and a Master of Social Work from McMaster University.
“I do believe that we can make a difference. I’ve seen it and that is the most gratifying aspect of my work,” added the 1999 Ontario Premier’s Award recipient. “You may not be able to change everybody and everything but you can change something, even if it’s small.” As a former Field Practicum Coordinator and instructor in the SSW program, Bridgman-Acker has seen the commitment to supporting the community on the part of both students and those working in the profession.
Being Part of the Solution
After amassing 20 years of experience in the field of marketing, administration and project management in the banking industry, Cheryl Robinson embarked on a new career that taps into her passion for serving others in need. It was the first six months of her youngest child’s life that that helped the 2014 graduate truly define her future goal. The social worker assigned to Robinson while her son spent an extended time in the hospital made a profound impact on her. “There was such a need for support. I saw that I could be a solution for these mothers. My experience with Joseph opened my eyes to what I really wanted to do,” recalled Robinson, who has three children.
“Life can be like climbing a ladder. There is a purpose to every rung.”
Although working in a hospital setting is her ultimate goal, Robinson is proud to be an agent of change in her current position as a Crisis Counsellor for Victim Services of Peel whose mandate is to provide immediate crisis intervention, short term counselling, resources, referrals and round-the-clock support to persons victimized by crime or tragic circumstances. “People ask me, ‘How can you enjoy your job when you are dealing with such serious issues every day?’” Her response: “It’s not the issues; it’s the outcome, the support I provide and the empathy I can offer. That’s what I enjoy.” As part of her career plan, Robinson will pursue a Bachelor of Social Work in Fall 2015, another welcome challenge, she said. “Life can be like climbing a ladder. “There is a purpose to every rung. Every step is important.”