By Susan White
As a little girl growing up in Rocky Mount, N.C., Louise Coggins often lingered over stories of her grandmother and great aunt, both volunteer social workers during World War II. Coggins admired their strength and compassion. Their dedication to others in need further fueled her own enthusiasm for a profession that she has embraced now for nearly 37 years.
A 1980 MSW graduate from UNC’s School of Social Work and current chair of the School’s Board of Advisors, Coggins still views her career as the fulfillment of a family tradition.
“It was just a legacy of that’s what you do – you give back,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t really know it was called social work. I just knew that I wanted to give back and help people.”
Although she earned a B.A. in psychology from Carolina, Coggins never considered pursuing a Ph.D in the same field. Social work offered more diverse career opportunities and would better prepare her to work with a greater variety of people, she said.
“Social workers have the skills to work in almost any setting, whether it’s with the Red Cross, or the military, or senior centers or for a hospital,” she said. “So for me, going into social work just seemed like the wisest thing to do because I knew I would be trained for so many different things and that I would be able to help people in the broadest way.”
And for more than three decades, she’s done just that by providing mental health services to children, adults and families from across the state. Inspired by her own family’s work, Coggins got her start as a volunteer, first with a group home for emotionally disturbed teenagers in Chapel Hill and later as a volunteer behavior modification therapist with a center in Butner.
Over the course of her career, she has served as a houseparent and primary therapist at a group home and treatment center for emotionally disturbed youth and as a teacher and center director for pre-school children at a federally-funded child development center.
As a social worker for the Forsyth County Mental Health Clinic in the 1970s, Coggins helped develop a specialized adolescent inpatient program; led hospital educational groups for children; and problem-solving groups for adults and alcoholics. She also trained court volunteers, social workers and detention center staff in behavioral management skills. Since 1980, she has worked as a psychotherapist in private practice, providing individual, marital, family, and group psychotherapy.
“I have felt like social work was a calling since the first time I sat down to work with a client,” Coggins said. “I feel like this (career) has offered me just the greatest opportunity to meet so many people, and I have been so blessed to work with my clients, who give me so much in terms of letting me help them.”
Through her service, Coggins also has helped strengthen the profession. In 1991, she advocated for mandatory certification for clinical social workers in North Carolina. Today, licensure is required for all clinical social workers in the state. Such mandates boosted the profession’s credibility and helped social workers develop an identity separate from the medical and psychological fields, Coggins said.
“I think social work has defined itself more clearly over time,” she added. “We are much more unified as a field today. But I think our roles have grown and the respect that we receive from other disciplines also has grown tremendously.”
Social workers have always been change makers, and Coggins continues to be right there among them, often leading the way with her volunteerism. In December, she was named “Philanthropist of the Year” by the N.C. Cape Fear Region Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The award was given in honor of her community leadership, her personal generosity and her fundraising efforts on behalf of the School of Social Work.
The recognition was well-deserved for such a tireless leader, said Mary Beth Hernandez, the School’s associate dean for advancement.
“I can’t even begin to describe the impact that Louise has had on the School of Social Work during her time as board chair,” Hernandez said. “She’s an enthusiastic cheerleader for the School, as well as a masterful fundraiser. In short, she’s just phenomenal!”
Over the years, Coggins also has devoted much of her time and passion to charities and organizations that address significant social justice issues, including racism, sexism, human trafficking, and domestic violence. “We don’t just change the world with each individual client but by working with organizations doing social justice social work on the macro level,” she said.
All social workers have a critical responsibility to stand up for the vulnerable, whether by offering “time, money, talent or advocacy,” Coggins added.
“It’s not about people giving large financial gifts,” she said. “Social workers already give a ton because they are choosing a profession in which they are not going to make a lot of money. And it’s not about giving tons of hours of time. There is simply a need to be involved. We need all sorts of service and levels of giving.
“We have to be active advocate social workers. We have to be out there working for the people who don’t have a voice.”