Giving Back

Maggie Swift

© Copyright 2004 by Maggie Swift 


Photo of a bronze sculpture of LOVE.

I am proud to call myself a Social Worker.   I honestly consider it a privilege to be associated with a profession based on helping others.  At the end of the day I know I did a good thing.   More than that I hope that I made a difference and brought some meaning to people who might not otherwise know it is there. Thus far in my career I have been involved with people needing basic health care services, relief from poverty, decent housing, mental health stabilization, safety from lethal domestic situations, general comfort and human touch.   And, it is from my own life experiences that I draw interest, strength and passion to continue working with people in need.

When I was 10 years old my father murdered my mother. This is never easy to say.  But, this is my foundation, where I come from.  When I am asked to reflect on my life, this is my starting point.  I was not a direct witness to this event.  I was, however, a witness and recipient to just as much cruelty as that one event signifies.  Without too much detail here, I can tell you that the legacy of violence in the home runs deep.  I was the child who called 911 when horrific acts were committed in my presence.  I was also the child who continually feared that I would be next.  Pathetically, it seemed inevitable to me that my father would take my mother’s life.  There was no escape.  We went to shelters, friends and strangers.  Each time he found us, literally dragging her back, with my younger brother and I in tow.

When my father was imprisoned my younger brother and I went to live with our paternal grandmother.  As a professional, this also strikes me as odd- how could the family of the perpetrator be a good placement.  My paternal grandmother “Granny” was 75 years old when we arrived at her doorstep. She was an elderly woman who survived the Depression, raising 10 children, and an abusive husband of her own.  Petite in stature, she wielded might in her conviction that we belonged with her.  She gave us shelter in her home.  And, it was one of the poorest in terms of physical conditions and emotional nurturing.   The wooden stairs were literally worn through in places, stuffing pushed out of the couches, and entire room was locked and off limits from anyone but Granny.  She feared someone was always stealing from her, so she locked non-perishables in the spare bedroom.

Two of my uncles lived with us.  One was the youngest child who never really left home.  The other was the schizophrenic who cycled in and out of the state hospital.   The latter continued to terrorize the home.  In the throws of his illness he became verbally abusive, vulgar and mean.  He also had quite a talent for saying vicious things to young children while out of earshot from any adult.  Given my home life prior to this, I took such things to heart.  So, I slept with scissors and told no one how completely paralyzed I felt on the inside.  I was thankful to have a home where at least someone acted like a protector.  Even if she was just over five foot tall, and mostly bedridden.

We did have one aunt and uncle who brought encouragement and lightheartedness into our lives.  These two rescued my brother and I on weekends especially- when not involved with their own families.  They disciplined when necessary, but overall reinforced that the circumstances of our childhood, my childhood, were not of our doing.  For me they spotlighted my intelligence and channeled my choices for outcomes that might make the future promising.

Upon high school graduation, I was offered scholarships to attend the state college.  Instead, I choose to use my social security survivor’ benefits to attend college in New England.  None of the out of state schools offered grants or scholarships to me, but I knew I needed a clean start.  I left for college at age 18 and have not turned around since. At the time I wanted to make documentaries, because the need to witness and bear witness came early to me.  When my funds ended I continued my education one course at a time.  For several years I worked two or three jobs and completed as many courses as I could afford.

In 1997 I considered it an honor to be accepted into a Graduate School of Social Work.  I made it no secret that I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from high school.  I have truly enjoyed all of my education experiences.  The result of such enjoyment meant solid grade point averages- not to perform for others, but to really understand what others were trying to teach me.  I’d always considered education a window to the rest of the world. For me, it is way to see what is possible.

I also made it no secret that I could never “check one box only” regarding my own ethnicity.  I self identify as Bi-Racial Only. My father was African-American, and my mother was Caucasian.  If there is no space for this on a survey, I simply write it in.  Some of this “passive-aggressive” behavior stems from years of feeling, well, boxed in.  Of all the problems my parents experienced in their own lives, they always made my identity clear- “you are black and white”.  Mostly I can “pass for white”.  To those who don’t know me the assumption is that I have led a life congruent with that identity.  But, my reality has been much different.

I had the pleasure to be a participant in the university multicultural program serving students of minority backgrounds.  All of it was a wonderful experience because not only did I meet others who were multiracial in and of themselves, but also I met others who also struggled with how they are viewed by the world, versus their own personal experience.

A professional opportunity to work with expectant mothers with substance abuse came shortly after graduation.  The location was in an economically challenged  county in the southwest.  The women in the program desperately wanted their experiences to be heard.  The women served by the program were predominantly Hispanic/Chicano, Catholic and poor.  Most of the women did not have access to adequate transportation- including public, access to adequate/safe housing, had other children in their care, were undereducated and with abusive partners.

These women, underserved and judged, welcomed every ounce of encouragement, even if it had to be on her own terms.  One of the clients continued to live in the desert- in a homeless camp.  She knew that emergency housing was available to her.  Yet she chose to live in the desert with her family.  When she was offered bus passes she used them to keep her appointments and meetings consistently- even in the summer heat in the desert.  She also traded in real beer for alcohol free beer (harm reduction in some form).  When I pressed her about housing she would reply, “You’re a good person, I like to come here.  But I can only do this one step at a time”.   It finally seemed possible that she could remain sober for at least one pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby.

I gained so much from my involvement with the program.  I gained new insight in dealing with people with addictions.  There were instances where I struggled serving women who, to me, appeared to put their own needs well before their children’s needs.  I learned that an addiction can take hold of anyone, and that it is easier said than done to “just say no”.  Most of the women were brutally honest about their struggles with quitting drugs.  Clean and sober meant no longer being numb to the real issues of violence and injustice that ran rampant in their lives.   It also meant not having to face the fear and challenge of making different, hopefully positive choices.  This was a frightening thought to some.

When I meet with student interns and others in training I encourage them to think of underserved and at-risk populations as not just those who will probably fail out of school or become dependent on substances.  These are the textbook responses.  At risk, for this social worker, means someone who may not see the hope and possibility that can be theirs with the right help along the way.  These are people at risk of not caring about themselves; just giving up and putting their lives in jeopardy because it just seems too impossible that their lives could be different.  I know because I have been there.

Both professionally and personally, I understand the dynamics of feelings of shame, anger, contentment and hope.  I consider myself fortunate to continue helping others make their way toward the latter.  At risk and underserved, especially, deserve more than just an upgrade of the basic human needs.  My own benefit is in witnessing people move toward a better emotional space, one where they can at least glimpse an opportunity for a healthier life.

My name is Maggie.  I currently live in the Southwest.  I love being a Social Worker.

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