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Amanda Harshman

Social Work for Social Good

By Lisa Cannon

“You can come in
here if you need
to pace back and
forth and yell
and scream.
This is a safe
space to do that.”

District social worker, Amanda Harshman, and her colleague Cara Lacy, have created just such a safe space. It’s a repurposed classroom alongside their office. The chairs are comfy, the lights are low, and word is out that it is open to any student or teacher who wants to spend some time there.

Ms. Harshman tells students that they can use the room to get their “stuff out.” She says: “You can come in here if you need to pace back and forth and yell and scream. This is a safe space to do that rather than doing it in the classroom or in the hallways, like, come in here, vent, get it all out, and then we can talk about it and help you.” She adds: “We’ve had students, lots of students that will do that. They just come in and carry on, and then they’re like, okay, I’m ready to talk now. And we talk through it, and we get them back to class.”

As a mother of two lively young children, she cherishes her hour-long commute to and from school. It is her time to charge up for the day, or decompress after it’s over, so that she can be fully present and her best self at both work and home. Home for Amanda is Carterville. Nestled in more racially homogenous Williamson County and fewer than 50 miles from Mounds as the crow flies, it is a world away.

In contrast, Pulaski County is roughly equally populated by White and Black communities and has some of Illinois’ highest poverty rates. Turns out the connection was Cara, who was working as a social worker for the special education cooperative in the county. They were looking to hire another team member and Cara reached out to Amanda. Later, both women switched to working in the Meridian school district.

Amanda declares: “I love it here!” And she diplomatically, but firmly, dismisses any questions from neighbors at home about how or why she works there. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a significant learning and adjustment curve. She was thrown into doing all special education work, something she had no practical experience in, but clearly was a quick learner. “I kind of had to learn everything in the moment and on the job.”

Describing the student body, she notes that many children come from families with limited economic resources and that there is a high level of racial diversity, nationalities, religions. She says, “I was used to working with a few students and mostly working with classrooms... here I have a caseload of students that need me almost on a daily basis. They have so many different social-emotional needs. And we have several crises throughout the week that I was not used to before.” She seems to have adjusted extremely well and is enjoying the professional challenge.

She notes, “When I first started here and I would try to get students into counseling, or as soon as you mentioned the word counseling, a lot of them are kind of like, whoa, I don’t need that. And especially their families are like, whoa, we don’t do that, we don’t talk to people type of thing. And so I feel like even in the time, the years that I’ve been here, that has shifted a lot. Students run up to her in the hallways and ask when she is coming back to their classrooms. Parents are even calling and asking for counseling for their kids. Wow, that’s nice. So I think that was a huge shift, and Arrowleaf, a local human services agency (https://myarrowleaf. org/), has been a big partner in helping us with that shift. The district and community partners have worked hard to educate folks and provide resources and information, noting: “This magazine is an important part of that work.”

Our final question: “What gets you through tough days?” Her reply: “Staff members who are best friends that you love,” help her get through tough days. And students, “Even the ones that you had a difficult day with yesterday... The next day they’re coming up and telling me they love me and giving me a hug, and I’m hugging them right back and telling them I love them right back. Speaking of kids she loves, it’s her daughter’s eighth birthday today, so she needs to get home! Undoubtedly, on the drive home, her kids in Meridian will be as much on her mind as they always are, even as her own daughter prepares to blow out her eight candles.

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