This year’s Social Work Month theme, “Social Workers Are Essential,” embodies the heroic contributions of the Social Work profession to our nation, including the work Social Workers have done to heal our nation during these times of pandemic, racial unrest, economic uncertainty and political divisiveness.
The concept of social work arose in the United States in the years following the Civil War, as the country dealt with needs of veterans, widows and orphans, a rising population of immigrants and freedman, the former slaves who were now emancipated. Voluntary service organizations, faith-based institutions and benevolent societies were formed to address the needs of persons who struggled to care for themselves or their families. Some of the best known nonprofit organization in the country, think of the YMCA or the American Red Cross, as well as local institutions and settlement houses, like Hull House in Chicago, or fraternal organizations like the Hibernians were formed or expanded in this era. They founded hospitals, fire departments, public health program, orphanages and “old age homes,” life and health insurance and pension plans.
By the late nineteenth century, “social work” was emerging as a profession and a field of study. Columbia University, Simmons College and Harvard University, and the University of Chicago were among the first to offer degrees for clinical social workers. By the end of World War I, there were 17 recognized schools of social work in the US. And while poverty remained the focus of many organizations, there was also growing interest in serving mental health needs, including those of “shell shocked” soldiers returning home from the war.
The founding of the Benjamin Rose Institute in 1908 coincided with the emergence of social work as a profession. The Institute’s original focus, to provide pensions for “worthy older adults” and cover medical expenses for “crippled children and youth” was administered by its volunteer board of directors. But the board relied on the efforts of its “friendly visitors” who made home visits, interviewed applicants and their families and recommended cases for funding. In its early years, the Institute was sometimes criticized for its independence in its service delivery. Over time, the Institute and its friendly visitors formed partnerships with area hospitals and other service organizations to better fulfill its mission. The Benjamin Rose Institute hired Margaret Ryder as its first official caseworker in 1930. In the 1960s, Benjamin Rose was pioneering research on the impact of social work on older people and families.
Today, social workers at Benjamin Rose are advocates, counselors, way finders and connectors for older adults and family caregivers. Our social workers are also at the forefront of advancing the profession, helping bring innovative and evidence-based practices to the field. Through local services in northeast Ohio, and in many collaborative projects across the country, the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging continues its commitment to meeting the needs of older adults and the people who care for them. Now as always, social workers are essential.
Read a brief history of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging: https://www.benrose.org/web/guest/history
Learn more about the origins of social work: