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National Social Work Month: Dr. Pat McKernan, Chief of Staff at Gaudenzia

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March is designated as National Social Work Month (NSWM). Here at Gaudenzia, we’ve been celebrating by spotlighting some of the incredible social workers on our team. To close out NSWM, we’re excited to share expert insights on the field from our very own Chief of Staff, Patricia McKernan, DSW, LSW.  

Dr. McKernan has served her community as a social worker since 1990. She was president of the New Jersey Reentry Coalition, where she served in leadership positions for over 15 years. In 2014, she was appointed to the New Jersey Board of Social Work Examiners. She holds a Master of Social Work and Doctor of Social Work from Rutgers University.

We’re so grateful to Dr. McKernan for taking the time to answer our questions. Keep reading for a look at a day in the life as Chief of Staff at Gaudenzia, the unique challenges and opportunities of social work in the substance use disorder treatment field, advice for new social workers, and more.

If you or someone you love needs help with substance use and co-occurring disorders, please call Gaudenzia’s 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) or email [email protected] today.

Dr. Pat McKernan, DSW, LSW

Can You Describe Your Career Trajectory So Far?

In 1990, I started in social work helping families on assistance. We helped families connect with education, jobs, housing, counseling, and childcare. When the regulations changed in 1996, I didn’t feel like I was part of a system that provided real opportunities to people. I had just completed my MSW and went to run an 84 bed men’s halfway house. All the men were still incarcerated and were serving the rest of their sentence in the community. We helped them with treatment, education, jobs, budgeting, and reuniting with their family.

I opened many more programs for men and women coming home from prison. My role expanded and I oversaw homeless shelters for men and for families, programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities, and seniors. After 23 years at my last job, I came to Gaudenzia.

What Inspired You to Pursue Social Work?

I had 12 years of Catholic school where we were taught the importance of having a vocation. I wanted to do something good in the world — work I would be proud of.

Where Do You Think the Field of Social Work is Headed in the Next Five to Ten Years?

The trend in social work has been toward clinical practice. I would like to see more social workers in leadership roles and in macro-practice. Since this is not the agenda of schools of Social Work, it is our responsibility in the field to demonstrate the impact that social workers can have on systems, organizations, and on lives.

What are the Biggest Challenges Those in Social Work Leadership are Facing Now?

Anyone in a leadership position is concerned about staffing and funding. We have to compete with for-profit companies who do not have the same mission and values we do in non-profits. We have to be vigilant about keeping our doors open to clients and providing the highest quality care with the most committed and talented staff.

What is Unique About Social Work in the SUD Field?

I think that social workers are trained to see the person in context and see the difficult systems they must navigate. Clinical social workers by training have expertise in mental health and are well-equipped to handle complex problems. I would like to see us bring on clinical social workers to attend to issues of attachment and attunement in all our women and children’s programs.

How Do Your Experiences with Social Work Inform You as a Leader at a Large Nonprofit Organization?

I hope my experiences in social work make me more aware of how systems, including our own, change and grow. Gaudenzia is a large organization with a celebrated history. We also had an imperative to lower barriers to treatment, improve compliance measures, and adopt more evidence-based practices. These things don’t happen overnight. They require a coalition of leaders to usher all of us toward a vision for a sustainable Gaudenzia that will be here for another 50 years.

Can You describe a “Day in the Life” as Chief of Staff at Gaudenzia?

Well, let’s see…my office is in Norristown, but today I was in Harrisburg for an all-day meeting with the wonderful Sam Paige (Executive Director of Gaudenzia’s Central and Western Regions) for supervision. I met with the Data Governance Committee helping them streamline the use of our EHR (electronic health record) software, myAvatar. Afterwards, I met with others about advocating to DDAP (PA’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs) for recommended changes, and then with the talented Amanda Jernigan (Gaudenzia Corporate Outpatient Director) for supervision. I also got to meet with the expert Cheryl Dondero (Gaudenzia Director of Government Affairs).

Then, I left Harrisburg to stay overnight in Glen Burnie, MD, so that I can meet with the superstar Kristy Blalock (Executive Director of Gaudenzia’s Chesapeake Region and Washington, D.C.) in supervision. The best days are trying to keep up with all-stars Bhavani Raghavan Lobo (Gaudenzia’s Chief of Quality Improvement) and Jessica Cantermen (Gaudenzia’s Director of Special Projects).

How Do you Take Care of Yourself to Prevent Burnout?

I go to the gym at least three times a week — women over 50 need at least 150 minutes a week of weight-bearing exercise! Outside of that, I like to read, listen to music, and watch a lot of true crime shows. I am an old movie buff, I like to see live music, and I like to travel. I’ve been to almost 30 National Parks! I drive a lot, so I also listen to a lot of Audible.

What Advice Do You Have for New Social Workers Entering the Field?

Work hard. Listen attentively. Be respectful. We are surrounded by survivors, and they have a lot to teach us. Be organized and get your work done. Documentation is self-care!

If you or someone you love needs help with substance use and co-occurring disorders, please call Gaudenzia’s 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) or email [email protected] today.

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