‘Social workers are my heroes’: Q&A with Bianca Vargas-Ocasio, Licensed Social Worker

Housed within Lurie Children’s, the Center for Childhood Resilience (CCR) is a team of multi-disciplinary experts who are driven by a passion to improve mental health outcomes for every child. Bianca Vargas-Ocasio is a bilingual Social Worker and Mental Health Consultant for the CCR, where she works collaboratively with schools and community agencies by providing consultation, training and coaching on establishing best practice systems and structures to create and maintain healing environments for children. She specializes in teaching trauma-responsive and culturally attuned practices, particularly to support refugees, immigrants, and other newcomer youth.

In honor of Social Work Month, Bianca shares the experiences that kick-started her passion for helping others, her perspective on the pandemic’s effect on the field of support services, and more.

How would you describe your job to a person who was unfamiliar with social work?

Social work is a multifaceted profession that encompasses a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of a person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.

I always say that the likelihood that everyone has had an encounter with a social worker in their lifetime is quite high. The profession exists in many different settings related to human services and mental health administration – fields like medicine, education, law enforcement, corporate agencies, local government and more. What every social worker does in their day-to-day can vary and look very different, but our aim is the same: to enhance overall well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of the communities and people we serve.

What first made you interested in studying social work? What motivated you to pursue it as a career?

When I was in my school-age years, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in a profession related to helping others. When I was young, I was involved in an organization through my church that did missionary work in the Dominican Republic, and I took my very first missionary trip when I was 9 years old. That experience marked me and gave me a new perspective on life. I knew I wanted to work to help others, particularly children who are vulnerable and oppressed. I continued to be involved in local community work in rural areas in Puerto Rico, where I grew up, and pursued an education in Social Work.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work with the Center for Childhood Resilience (CCR)?

I enjoy the work that I do with CCR, particularly my work on STRONG – Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups. STRONG is an evidence-informed, school-based group intervention that was created to support refugees, immigrants, and other newcomer youth. In the last two years, I’ve become a trainer and implementer for this intervention and have been able to co-train over 20 schools in Chicago and 16 districts across the country. This work brings me much joy, specifically hearing the incredible stories of resilience and strength of people that have journeyed from different places around the world to the U.S.

In what ways has your role changed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic?

The past two years have been all about adjustment and flexibility – not just for me, but for the schools, staff, and organizations that we partner with. Personally, I had to adjust to working from home with a newborn, as a first-time mom, and then returning to work in person as a mother.

Our team always focuses on supporting our partners by meeting them where they are at. In the pandemic, this has meant shifting all of our trainings from in-person to virtual, adding an understanding of how Covid-19 intersects with other stressors, and ensuring that our work is aligned with our values of equity and anti-racism.

The past two years have emphasized the important work social workers do in creating safety, building connections and relationships, promoting equity, and building on the strengths of the communities we serve.

What do you wish more people knew about CCR?

I think some people may not realize that our team works and is involved in many different spaces, both inside and outside of the hospital! CCR has a small but mighty group of social workers that all bring different backgrounds and skill sets to our team. We have a social worker leading almost every facet of our work.

For example, Carmen Holley worked in schools and now leads our Early Childhood work. Sybil Baker is the expert on most of our Tier II/evidence-based interventions. Caryn Curry focuses on our work in out-of-school spaces, like Golden Apple and with Girl Scouts. Meg O’Rourke leads several of our efforts for Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing (REACH). I’m honored to work with a group of such diverse and excellent social workers.

Anything else you’d like to share?

To all of my social worker colleagues, THANK YOU for showing up and working hard every day. Social workers are my heroes.

About the Lurie Children’s Center for Childhood Resilience

The Center for Childhood Resilience, housed at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, is dedicated to promoting access to high-quality mental health services for children and adolescents across Illinois and nationwide. CCR, which was founded in 2004, builds skills of adults in schools and youth-serving agencies to foster resiliency in the face of adversity. Using innovative, sustainable, culturally attuned, evidence-based strategies, CCR engages schools, school districts, and other youth-serving organizations to implement a public health approach to address the impact of trauma and promote mental health and wellness. CCR evaluates emerging best practices and collaborates with policymakers and communities to promote systems change to reduce health disparities and promote mental health and wellness where children live, learn and play! For more information on the Center for Childhood Resilience, visit www.childhoodresilience.org.

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