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School of Social Work community mourns the loss of one of its own

The UNC School of Social Work community is mourning the loss of one of its own. Clinical instructor and field adviser Teresa L. Ilinitch died unexpectedly on Feb. 3, at her home in Pittsboro. She was 50. Obituary

A “Celebration of Life” service will be held on Saturday, March 1, at The Barn at Fearrington near Chapel Hill, with a gathering beginning at noon and the program at 1:00 p.m. The family is also establishing a scholarship in Ilinitch’s name through the School of Social Work.

A native of Santa Clara, Calif., and a graduate of Stanford University and San Jose State University, Ilinitch came to the School of Social Work in 2009 as a project coordinator for the Family and Children’s Resource Program. A nationally known expert in family-centered practice and family group decision making, Ilinitch was hired to lead a national project to train state level child welfare managers on leadership and organizational change management. She brought a wealth of expertise to the role, having served more than 15 years in various positions including, as a direct services social worker, county social work supervisor, state level trainer and curriculum developer, national consultant and trainer for the U.S. Children’s Bureau and other groups, and as a state child welfare manager.

From the moment Ilinitch joined UNC, she established a presence among students, faculty, and staff as someone with an abundance of warmth, energy, and grace. Those who met her learned quickly that the instructor was just as exuberant about the profession of social work as she was about her love of life and family, said School of Social Work Dean Jack M. Richman.

“Teresa was a sparkling personality whose light positively impacted and touched everyone with whom she was in contact,” Richman said. “I will miss her affirming presence.”

Her passion for teaching and “earnest interest in the well-being of others,” were among the countless memories Ilinitch’s students, colleagues, and friends shared with one another after learning of her untimely death. Many reacted quickly to the news by turning to social media and other online communities where Ilinitch often shared her own passions, including numerous snapshots of her grandchildren, colorful pictures of nature, and inspirational messages.

“Do one act of kindness 365 days a year and change 365 lives.” Ilinitch had posted the quote from author Anthony Douglas Williams to her Facebook page just last month. Her friends and colleagues agreed the message seemed appropriate for someone who fully embodied such an ideal.

“I can’t think of anyone more ALIVE, warm, and in love with the world and those around her,” School of Social Work Professor Kim Strom-Gottfried commented on a Facebook group page for social workers. “How do we do justice to all she gave us?”

“My heart is heavy with grief,” added Sherry Mergner, a clinical assistant professor at the School. “I will always remember her bright smile.”

Ilinitch’s happiness often “filled a room,” said Rebecca Brigham, a clinical associate professor and director of the School’s Field Education Program.

“Teresa was just warm and engaging and lived the principles around partnering and empowerment and engagement. It was the essence of who she was.”

In addition to her skills and professionalism, Ilinitch brought “something unusual, intangible and more rare and precious to her work and relationships,” added School Professor Gary Nelson.

“She brought a positive effervescence and radiance—sunshine,” he said. “Teresa and her sunshine will be greatly missed in our community and in her family.”

Ilinitch shined just as brightly in the classroom, and in 2011, she received the Dean’s Recognition for Teaching Excellence Award. As a teacher, Ilinitch was an unexpected force, said Alice Drozdiak, a 1st-year MSW student, who still recalls encountering the clinical instructor for the first time in a direct practice course last semester.

“She was bubbly and sparkly, and I’m not, and I just didn’t know what to do with her at first,” Drozdiak explained to more than 50 students, faculty and staff who gathered earlier in the week to remember Ilinitch. “But she really won me over by her empathy and sincerity. I mean if you scratch the surface, she was that authentic all the way down. I think that was what was so compelling about her and her sparkle was that she had all the substance to back it up.”

Ilinitch was as enthusiastic about learning as she was about teaching. Just this year, she had begun her own journey as a student in the School’s Ph.D. program. As a scholar, she was interested in organizational interventions to prevent compassion fatigue and secondary trauma to front-line trauma workers. Though older than the other students in her doctoral cohort, Ilinitch embraced her peers and often jokingly referred to herself as the “mother of the group,” said Ph.D. student Todd Jensen.

“Indeed, she was as nurturing, supportive, strong, and wise as the best kind of parent would be,” Jensen said. “It did not take long for Teresa to carve out her own place in my heart and in my life—a place that now feels empty without her.”

Charity Sneed Watkins, an MSW/Ph.D. continuum student, agreed.

“When someone like this passes, it really makes you realize how much you need to live in the moment and to value the relationships that you build with people,” she said.

Students and colleagues said they also appreciated the instructor’s advocacy for children and families—work that Ilinitch seemed to cherish as much as her own roles as daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. She inspired loyalty and respect and cultivated strong partnerships and relationships with child welfare professionals from around the state and country, said Lane Cooke, a clinical associate professor and program coordinator for the Family and Children’s Resource Program.

“She accomplished a great deal in a career too short,” Cook said.

But her influence is everlasting, added Jensen.

“By powerfully embodying the core values of the social work profession, Teresa actively showed me what it really means to be a social work clinician and aspiring researcher,” he said.

Like so many others, Marty Weems, a clinical assistant professor at the School, searched for words of comfort and peace this week while facing the reality of Ilinitch’s absence. She found some in poet Maya Angelou’s, “When Great Trees Fall.”  “I just think it speaks to who she was and what she meant to those who knew her,” Weems said, pointing to the poem’s ending verses.

…And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to establish the Teresa Ilinitch Scholarship Fund. Checks should be made payable to the UNC School of Social Work Foundation with Ilinitch Scholarship on the memo line. Please send to the UNC School of Social Work, Office of Development, CB #3550, 325 Pittsboro Street, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599.