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Opportunity with the White House leads to social work calling

Ask Maryanne Henderson what led her to the field of social work and don’t be surprised if she subtly name drops one very influential national leader: President Obama.

Nearly seven years ago, Henderson was tapped for an internship with the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the White House administration. Henderson, the daughter of a North Carolina pastor, had just graduated from Furman University with a sociology degree and was working at the time with the United Way in Greenville, N.C., and helping to organize interfaith discussions with young college students. She credits that experience for helping her to land a rather plum assignment in the nation’s capital.

“It was really fascinating because I was thrown into this macro world for four months,” said Henderson, a student in the UNC School of Social Work’s dual degree Master of Divinity/Master of Social Work Program, and a McClernon Scholar. “It was a full leadership program so we were meeting a lot of folks in the administration, including the president, vice president, and first lady.”

In her role with the office, Henderson helped to connect with and build a database of African American clergy, an effort that culminated in an interfaith roundtable and policy discussion with religious leaders from around the country. But it was the office’s focus on maternal, infant and child health and reducing unintended pregnancies that really piqued her professional interest.
“I loved the D.C. world and the big picture stuff, but I realized my skills were more drawn to working directly with families,” she said. “So I started looking for more direct practice work.”

Her search led to Jubilee Housing, a faith-based nonprofit in Washington that provides affordable housing and supportive services to economically disadvantaged residents of the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Henderson helped to create a family resource center there but soon realized she needed more education and training to fully support the clients she wanted to help. Enrolling in the School’s MDiv/MSW program has strengthened those skills that were lacking, she said.

Henderson, who will graduate in May, knows many of her peers will likely choose opportunities and leadership roles with a church. But she’s aiming for a direct practice position that focuses on early intervention and early childhood mental health. As an intern with Durham’s Healthy Families, a home visiting program that provides resources and support to first-time mothers, Henderson has seen first-hand how multiple life stressors, such as poverty, domestic violence and health issues can affect a child’s development and a family’s overall well-being.

That’s why she’s hoping to work for a community-focused organization that is committed to improving outcomes and “moving toward big generational change.”

“That’s important to me because I think oftentimes, a family can come into a clinic to receive coping mechanisms and then they leave, and all they have are tools,” she said. “And that doesn’t change the fact that there are gunshots going off in their neighborhood, and they still don’t have enough money to buy diapers.”

That she has never had to weigh such fears isn’t lost on Henderson. She’s also aware that she will graduate with less debt, largely because of the tuition and financial assistance she has received, while many of the families she works with are still struggling to be debt-free. Both her social work education and her faith have helped to reinforce these lessons in privilege, she said. And they will continue to remind her of how critical it is to practice, “with our own social location in mind.”

“I’m really conscience of the fact that I have cushion to fall back on and that a lot of my families don’t have that,” she said. “I know I have a lot to be really thankful for.”

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