Each year at graduation, the School of Social Work presents the Distinguished Alumni Award as our way of honoring alumni who embody social work values and carry our mission of service into the world. Alumni can be nominated by peers, faculty members, fellow alumni or students and are chosen by a committee.
For 2010 we have two winners: JoAnn McCatchern Swart, MSW ‘78; and the late Myrna Miller Wellons, MSW ‘96.
In addition to being named a distinguished alumna, Swart, of Castle Hayne, N.C., was also named the 2010 Social Worker of the Year by the North Carolina Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
While working more than 40 years as a social worker with 35 years with the New Hanover County Department of Social Services, Swart’s passion has been responding to the needs of children in the field of adoption and foster care.
She has been active in various statewide meetings, especially in the areas of adoption recruitment and legislative concerns. She has also been a valuable resource for adult adoptees searching for background information, birth parents wanting to learn about their adult adopted children and adoptive parent through support groups.
In 2002, her oldest daughter, age 22, was caught in a rip current and drowned. Swart turned her grief into a mission to educate coastal residents and tourists about rip current safety. Swart wrote to many organizations in New Hanover County responsible for educating people who lived there or visited the area. She wrote to many rental companies urging them to provide a free pamphlet on rip currents. She also created the acronym “SCAPS,” which stands for Stay Calm and Parallel Swim with the shore.
In 2003, Swart became a charter member of the Rip Current Awareness Strategies Team. RCAST’s goal is to reduce the number of deaths by rip currents. In 2005, Swart was interviewed on the “Today” show, and in 2007 she made a public service announcement for the local schools’ TV channel.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Commerce National Weather Service gave her a Public Service Award for “significant services rendered for her promotion of Rip Current Awareness.” The New Hanover County Commissioners recognized her in 2006 when they affirmed the Governor’s Proclamation declaring the first week of June as Rip Current Safety Awareness Week. In May 2009, Swart was named the YWCA Women of Achievement recipient in the volunteer sector.
Wellons, a North Carolina women’s rights and social welfare champion, is being honored posthumously. She died March 1, 2010 from a catastrophic stroke at the age of 40.
At her death, she was president-elect of the board for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), North Carolina Chapter; vice-chair of the state’s Diabetes Advisory Council and a board member of the Mental Health Association of North Carolina. Wellons had also served as director of government relations for the NASW’s state chapter. She was a familiar face at the General Assembly advocating for child welfare, women’s rights, diabetes issues and support for North Carolina families.
She was employed in corporate affairs for Lilly USA at her death and was responsible for the company’s government relations in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, notably on mental health and diabetes issues.
She was especially noted for her mentoring and training of social workers throughout the state. She was a visiting lecturer at North Carolina State University, the UNC School of Social Work and Meredith College. It was not uncommon for her former students to call her for professional and personal advice, at all hours.
In addition to her MSW, she also earned degrees from UNC in journalism and psychology (ABJM ‘91) and the School of Law (JD ‘95).
Wellons was a tireless lobbyist for her causes and worked with Democrats and Republicans on professional issues such as title protection for social workers and public funding for diabetics.
Wellons is survived by her husband Robert, and their infant son, Christopher, both of Cary.