In 2012, the St. David’s Foundation established a generous endowment to help the School of Social Work increase the number of bilingual social workers serving Spanish-speaking clients in Central Texas. The endowment funds fellowships for master’s level students who commit to stay in the area for two years after graduating.

social work graduation capThis past Saturday, five proud St. David’s Foundation scholars walked across the stage during the School of Social Work graduation ceremony at Bass Concert Hall. Lotty Ackerman was one of them. While in the program, he did field internships with Communities In Schools of Central Texas and SafePlace, where he witnessed the need for bilingual social workers.

“There is a high need for social workers who speak Spanish and are able to provide culturally sensitive services to the Latino community in Central Texas,” Ackerman said. “The St. David’s Foundation fellowship was a big help for me, and allows me now to go into the field and apply my skills.”

Another student, Sandra Olarte-Hayes, was excited about joining the growing number of St. David’s Foundation fellowship recipients who are already working in the Central Texas area.

“With this year’s graduating cohort, there will be ten bilingual social workers staying in the area and serving the Spanish-speaking population. That’s a pretty good number, given how few are out there now,” Olarte-Hayes stated.

Jane Kretzschmar, assistant dean for master’s programs, said that the need for social workers who speak Spanish is acute. Many Travis County residents speak a language other than English in the home, and an increasing number of clients request Spanish-speaking social workers each year in Central Texas social service agencies.

“In the past, we had grants that allowed us to provide fellowships to bilingual students. But as all grants, they eventually ended. The great thing about the St. David’s Foundation endowment is that it’s permanent. Each year we are adding to the cadre of Spanish-speaking social workers… and we will keep doing it forever,” Kretzschmar explained.

Dr. Michael Wilson, program officer at the St. David’s Foundation, said that the foundation recognizes the important role that bilingual social workers play in the community and throughout Central Texas.

“Without bilingual social workers, Spanish-speakers lose the opportunity to have their needs understood on their terms and in their language. I am happy that we were able to provide this endowment to the School of Social Work,” Wilson stated.

2014 St. David Foundation scholars graduating cohort
2014 St. David’s Foundation scholars graduating cohort

Lorena Urbina graduated in 2013, with the first cohort of St. David’s Foundation scholars. She currently works for Communities In Schools of Central Texas.

“Many times families come in and ask, ‘Do you speak Spanish?,’” Urbina said. “When I respond, ‘Yes’, I can see that this alleviates pressure and anxiety for the families about having to communicate in English.”

Daisy Thompson also graduated in 2013 as a St. David’s Foundation scholar. She is now a program therapist at McCallum Place, where she assists patients with eating disorders.

“There’s a popular misconception that eating disorders affect only white, adolescent girls from middle to upper class families, but patients come in all shapes, sizes, ethnic, and religious backgrounds,” Thompson said.

Like Urbina, Thompson is well aware of the benefits that her bilingual skills provide to the agency she works for.

“Many times the adolescents are bilingual, so I go with their preferred language, but in most cases the parents are only Spanish-speaking,” Thompson explained. “I am very glad that I was able to bring my bilingual skills to this organization, as this was something that didn’t exist here before.”

Being one of the few bilingual social workers on staff can be challenging at times.

“At my internships at El Buen Samaritano and LifeWorks, all the bilingual counselors were really busy. It was common to have lots of paperwork, someone calling, and someone with a crisis walking in, all at the same time!,” Olarte-Hayes said.

Regardless of the challenges, both Ackerman and Olarte-Hayes are thrilled to graduate, and very grateful for the opportunity to work with the Spanish-speaking community.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to give back to my community from all of Latin America,” Ackerman said. “I’m extremely grateful for the St. David’s Foundation fellowship. I wouldn’t have been able to do my master’s at the School of Social Work without it.”

By Miguel Gutierrez Jr. and M. Andrea Campetella. Posted May 19, 2014.