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Putting Together Puzzle Pieces

Alena Sherman's picture

by Maury Mendenhall, Senior Advisor on Orphans and Vulnerable Children, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of HIV/AIDS.

Image of Maury MendenhallI am a social worker by training. But for most of my career, I never thought I could consider myself one.

Since graduating with my Masters of Social Work, I have worked at the international level. With each role, I developed a stronger understanding of the difficulties faced by children and families under varying circumstances. I observed brilliant ways children and families were able to work together with relatives, friends, communities, and religious and government resources—as well as ways that the individuals themselves overcame challenges and supported others to do the same. But each job seemed to push me further and further away from opportunities to work with the people I always imagined I would support directly.  

After I arrived at USAID, my wonderful supervisor, Gretchen Bachman, told me that my social worker background was one of the reasons I was hired. Gretchen not only valued social workers, but she wanted me to find ways to build and strengthen social service workers across multiple levels of our programming in global health.

She had a beautiful vision for social service workers and their critical role in efforts to address social determinants of health (SDH). The World Health Organization (WHO) refers to SDH as non-medical factors that influence health outcomes. It is only by understanding and influencing the forces and systems shaping the conditions of people’s daily lives that we can influence and improve health. The 2022 report, “Social Service Workers in Health Facilities,” covers this in more detail.

A few months into my first year at USAID, Gretchen encouraged me to work with partners to organize a conference on social service work, which was held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010 and supported by the U.S. Government through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). I will always consider this conference life changing.

It was a conference full of “aha” moments. I had trained to be a social worker because I love children and families. But during the conference, I was also reminded that I really love social service workers.

The conference provided us a wonderful opportunity to share experiences, ideas, successes, and challenges and celebrate workers that are so often underappreciated and overlooked. I know that this conference sparked “aha” moments for others too, because we were so eager to keep talking, collaborating, and growing a larger and stronger global network with a team of social service workers. We didn’t want the conference to end.

Timeline of countries that created new social service worker training programs, new government cadres, and increased funding for social service workers since 2010.

When the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance was officially born in 2013, I finally felt like a real social service worker. Social service workers operating at the micro and meso level with families and communities are fundamental. But there is also a role for me, supporting efforts to pull everything together at the macro level.

My team at PEPFAR was the primary funder of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance for the first four years of its infancy. It is exciting to see what our colleagues from PEPFAR countries who attended the conference—and are now active members of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance—have achieved over the past 13 years. It is also exciting to see what the Alliance has grown into, and to realize that it has become so much more than what was first conceived at the Cape Town conference in 2010.

Social service workers put together all of the puzzle pieces that are the most difficult to find. We cannot end the HIV epidemic by 2030 without their help. I am so proud to be a social service worker. There is nothing I would rather do than help social service workers solve puzzles, earn the respect and support they need to do this important work, and know that they should be so very proud of their roles as social service workers too.