Shawnee Mission East

Unsung Heroes: Social workers bring a unique background to high school

Social workers Emily McNaughton and Elizabeth Kennedy have never seen themselves as heroes, unsung or otherwise. From their experiences, their jobs are never about themselves, but about the individual who comes to them for help.

“We don’t have a magic wand,” Kennedy said.

“No magic wand,” McNaughton laughed as she agreed.

No matter how much they wish they did.

But the two are heroes — much more than the Shawnee Mission East community may know. McNaughton has worked at East for about 20 years, while Kennedy has been here for fewer than one. Both worked in places drastically different from East before they arrived here.

McNaughton’s career in social work began with her first practicum during college. Instead of having an interview,  her interview took her directly to the place where she would be working.

“He [the interviewer] loaded me up in a van and took me to group homes where adults with chronic mental illness lived,” McNaughton said. “And it was jarring to me. And I left, and I sobbed and I thought maybe I’ve gotten into the wrong thing here.”

But 24 hours later, she had changed her mind — completely. She realized she had gotten into exactly the right thing.

The group homes off the street Paseo — ”a stereotypical rough area of Kansas City” — opened her eyes to the boundaries social work was meant to cross, and the challenges it helped individuals overcome.

“They would be showered, shaved, their hair done, I would have this very lucid, coherent conversation with them,” McNaughton. “And the next week, they would have not taken their medication, or maybe it would be several weeks, and they would age. They would not know who I was, they could not carry on a conversation, they would be hallucinating.”

Her job was to provide support for them, from helping them manage their medication to being proactive about budgets. Helping people help themselves — the essence of social work that carries over into counseling at Shawnee Mission East.

Kennedy’s first practicum was at a community mental health center in Topeka, Kan. where she did outpatient therapy with adults who suffered from severe and persistent mental illness. She saw clients with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and personality disorders.

“Eye opening at 23,” Kennedy said. “Most of my clients were much older than me.”

In her next practicum, she worked in a therapy office where she saw clients without insurance. Kennedy describes that year as being “in way over [her] head.”

These two experiences led her to her next job of four years at the Wyandotte Mental Health Center, where she did outpatient therapy, in-home therapy and worked in psych hospitals. The final portion of this job was a grant-funded school-based therapy program, where she became interested in working in a high school.

Though Kennedy has only worked at East one year, she and McNaughton both agree that there’s nothing they dislike about the high school environment. They love the high school population and the “never the same day twice” feeling of it.

Many times the kids they help are dealing with stress, whether it be from school or family struggles or nerves about the future.

“It’s adolescents moving towards that adulthood,” Kennedy said. “And I just love talking to kids about their futures. It’s different because I’m doing more short-term work, not therapy. More of a short-term kind of support for kids when they need it here.”

McNaughton agrees. The two of them greatly enjoy the conversations they’re able to have with kids on a daily basis. However, one of the most important parts of their jobs is self-care.

Self-care plays a large role in the training of a social worker, and it’s the work one does for themselves to prevent burn out or taking the struggles of work home with them.

“I know that when I first got out of school, I thought, ‘Oh that’s silly,’” Kennedy said. “And now five years in, I’m understanding.”

As McNaughton explains, almost any social work job entails listening to someone else’s stress of some kind. Learning to accept that those struggles cannot be immediately fixed is part of being good at the job.

“In the stories that you hear, just being a human and hearing some horrific things will weigh on you,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy struggled during her first two or three years of work to set boundaries to prevent herself from becoming too overwhelmed — taking calls after hours, working late.

“Doing all those things that an excited social worker wants to do,” Kennedy said. “It eventually weighed on me, and I started to kind of see the people around me start to burn out too.”

She realized the necessity of the self-care she was taught during school. Both her and McNaughton use exercise as a stress-reliever. They also are vigilant about not taking their work home with them.

“It takes a lot of practice,” McNaughton said. “Because you can’t help, when you hear stories, find yourself driving home from work, and it’s playing through your head. You’re making dinner, hanging out with your friends or your family, and you’re playing it through your head.”

McNaughton and Kennedy have learned that in order to be most successful in helping others, they need to care for themselves.

“Sometimes people, especially in times of a stressful situations or a not so good situation that they may be in, they don’t realize what they’re capable of,” McNaughton said. “So it’s our job to help them figure out what they’re capable of.”