“I take you for who you are”: Social workers Gardner and Norris

Northwood students face challenges like pregnancy, mental illness, poverty, grief and stress each year. Saundra Gardner and Rachael Norris, the school’s social workers, are the women who help students deal with these problems.

Gardner has been working as a social worker for 30 years, 15 of which have been with Chatham County Schools. Every week, she works with students from Pittsboro Elementary, Moncure, Horton and Northwood. Norris has been with Chatham County Schools for three years and works at Perry Harrison, North Chatham, Pollard and Northwood.

A school social worker rarely has a set schedule.

“The thing that I love about being a school social worker is that I really never know what I’m going to walk into, so every day is different. I really like that, because I don’t think that I’m a person that could have a job where I do the exact same thing every single day,” Norris said. “I think that would be very monotonous and boring to me. School social workers help with more acute needs, putting out fires.”

On a typical day, Gardner says she does everything from purchasing second-hand clothes for lower-income students, to suicide interventions, to home visits for absentee students.

“Yesterday, I was at the thrift shop trying to buy pants for a little boy who continues to wear shorts even though in the mornings at the bus stop it’s running about 40 degrees,” Gardner said. “This morning, I was dealing with a student who I got a call saying they were suicidal overnight; so the first thing I did this morning was a suicide intervention process to make sure that student was okay….Then I went up here and made a home visit for a student who wants to return to Northwood but has a whole lot of issues, so I need to get that straight.”

Social workers deal with a wide range of issues, some of which might seem to students like the responsibility of a guidance counselor. Gardner lists home visits—driving to a student’s house if they are missing from school without an explanation—as one of her major responsibilities, in addition to finding community resources and advocacy for students.

“If you’re missing, I’m going out looking for you,” Gardner said. “We also do more counseling on a level that’s not about academics. We can deal with your boyfriend issues, or we can just cover a wider scope, and because we are the link between the home and the school, we talk to a lot of parents about what’s going on at home and the financial issues at home.”

Both Norris and Gardner worked in a variety of settings before choosing school social work.

“The students [are what made me choose school social work over other fields],” Gardner said. “I meet them in kindergarten, like I’ve met my Moncure kids and Pittsboro Elementary kids in kindergarten, and then I want to see them graduate. That’s the best feeling, when there’s somebody that you know what they went through to get where they are [and] you see them gradu- ating. It’s just wonderful. I really like seeing those students get what they want. When they get yeses from colleges, and I know that they were really worried—like that whole Carolina application stressed them out—and they get a yes, that stuff just really makes me happy…. I like telling people good job.”

Social workers deal with sensitive issues like depression, drug use and pregnancy and are bound by a strict confidentiality contract that guidance counselors and teachers do not have.

“Students can say things to me that I have to help them figure out how to solve that problem, versus calling home or going to the administrators,” Gardner said.

Administrators say that the social workers play an important role in making sure the school functions smoothly.

“[Without the social workers], I think we would have a lot of students whose needs outside of school were not being met,” assistant principal Janice Giles said. “I think they bridge the home and school relationship and make sure that their home is supporting their school and helping them work together.”

After 15 years in Chatham County Schools, Gardner is close to retiring.

“I’m on my way out,” Gardner said. “Eventually I will have to go, and when I see my kids at Pittsboro Elementary and Horton, I think, ‘Should I stay until they graduate?’ If I have a goal, it would be that I find somebody who will love the kids as much as I do to take my place. I don’t want somebody that it’s just a job [for] to come and replace me…. I went to Northwood, so I want somebody who loves Northwood, who loves Pittsboro, who loves these kids from the bottom of their heart. I want to see somebody that I can say, ‘Okay, you’re the one. You should come and replace me [at Moncure, Pittsboro Elementary, Horton and Northwood] when you graduate.’”

Gardner was able to identify a few qualities that she thinks are most important to being a social worker.

“You have to be a good listener,” Gardner said. “Make sure that you like people, because if you don’t like people, don’t try to be a social worker. If people scare you, don’t try to be a social worker. And if you can’t walk into a house without being afraid, don’t be a social worker. You need to be able to let go of all the things you’ve built up in your mind, all of the stuff we grow up with, all of our ‘isms’—you have to let that go. So if you have problems with people who are lesbian, gay, not like you, you don’t need to be a social worker. You need to be able to just say, ‘I take you for who you are.’”

-By Frances Beroset