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Celebrating Unsung Heroes: The Impact and Importance of Social Workers in Our Communities

March is recognized as National Social Worker Month, a time to reflect on the tireless efforts of these professionals. This year’s theme, ‘Empowering Social Workers’, resonates deeply with MHD’s team. In this month's edition of The Beat, we'll explore the impacts MHD's team of social workers have on Milwaukee families.

About MHD’s Social Workers:

The health department employs seven social workers between two different programs. One occupies a newly established role within MHD’s Home Environmental Health (HEH) division, specializing in assisting families affected by lead poisoning. The other six work within the Empowering Families of Milwaukee (EFM) program, under the Community Health Branch of MHD’s Maternal and Child Health Division. EFM serves as a proactive resource for eligible families, working collaboratively with clients to establish and accomplish goals while addressing key social determinants of health, including housing, education, and employment.

“Since I was in high school, I've always said I wanted to help people. I just didn't know it meant social work,” said Bianca Sosa, an EFM social worker since 2016. “Being able to empower these families is what empowers me to keep going.”

“We get the unique part of social work, where we are the advocate and the support for that person,” said Kathleen Lopez, an EFM social worker since 2019.


When asked what they love about their job, each of the MHD social workers expressed that their number one priority is to make a difference in the community. Their dedication to their clients is what drives them forward.

“Our program is often a breath of fresh air for the social workers who are coming from working with Child Protective Services, to be working with families on prevention, or the health promotion side,” said EFM program manager Katie Schlipmann. “Our families are voluntarily choosing to be in the program, as opposed to being mandated by a court order to work with them.”

Every day, EFM social workers engage with a list of families, coordinating weekly visits, either in their homes or virtually. Their top priority is assisting families in overcoming life’s obstacles, ultimately empowering them to thrive independently. According to the National Home Visiting Resource Center, “Home visiting promotes infant caregiving, like breastfeeding, which has been associated with positive long-term outcomes related to cognitive development and child health.”

Approximately 10% of Milwaukee’s residents are uninsured or underinsured, qualifying for EFM services. The majority of EFM clients are low-income and face challenges such as domestic violence, inadequate housing, mental health issues, and food insecurity. Since 2018, EFM has assisted more than 200 Milwaukee families, supporting pregnant and postpartum mothers. After their child’s birth, EFM assists families for at least two years, with a focus on health equity. In Milwaukee, Black babies are three times more likely to die than white babies. Schlipmann emphasizes the social workers’ commitment to social justice and says each of them finds meaning and purpose through serving their community.

“Our social workers want to be a part of solutions, change, and positivity, and I think they get into this field to find a place where they're able to work out their passions,” Schlipmann said. “We take a holistic approach, looking at all of the things that influence a family’s health, then try to identify areas of growth and needs, as well as strengths and skills they already have. We then work with them to set individualized goals on the things that are important to them that they'd like to work on with us.”

Focusing on families’ health and well-being is also paramount to Charlene Wright, the sole social worker within HEH, who works in tandem with MHD registered nurses to meet with families impacted by lead poisoning.

In Milwaukee, homes built before 1978 likely contain lead paint, which, according to Milwaukee records, impacts approximately 200,000 units city-wide. The communities most affected by lead paint are primarily located on Milwaukee’s north and south sides, putting Black and brown babies at the highest risk of lead poisoning. In 2023, MHD worked on more than 300 child lead poisoning cases, either assisting families directly or referring them to community partners. Part of the challenge in addressing the unique needs of families from different backgrounds, such as Black, Latinx, Asian, and refugee communities, means many clients do not speak English as a first language. At that point, social workers coordinate with translation services during their visits.

“As a social worker, I feel empowered by my voice. Being able to advocate for my clients when they do not have a voice or understand, particularly those who do not speak English,” said Wright. “These families are very dear to me, because they need someone to advocate and speak for them.”

For Monique VanFelder, an EFM social worker since 2022, the heart of the job lies in building enduring relationships and helping families achieve their goals.

“We’re in and out of these people's homes and we're with these families for at least two years. Within that time, you're growing these long-term relationships and you become a part of their families,” VanFelder said. “Being a part of that journey of helping them overcome that hurdle. Seeing the good, the bad and the ugly. When you’re watching this family overcome everything, it’s honestly one of the best feelings,” VanFelder said. “You know what they've been through and how hard it was for them to probably get to that state, and to be able to overcome it. Then you get to see how happy they are at the end.”

Malia Heise, who joined the MHD social worker team in 2022, highlights the trust established with clients.

“My clients start to feel like I'm part of the family, versus a stranger coming into their home telling them what to do,” Heise said. “They trust us, they lean on us. I feel like there's a quicker turnaround for change because they have someone already in their life that they trust to help.”

Like HEH, EFM social workers also collaborate alongside MHD registered nurses, engaging with families on early intervention and advocacy. Focusing on pregnancy or postpartum education, as well as child development, EFM social workers aim to prevent issues from escalating to the point of involving state services.

“We see it time and time again with the families we work with, that there are resources available, but not until they’re officially forced out of their house and moving onto the street. It’s like there's nothing to keep people in their homes while they’re still there,” said Grace Bryant, who’s served as an EFM social worker since 2019. “With programs like EFM, we're walking them through it. We can't battle all of those barriers, but we can be there to support and help families advocate for themselves. It's not such an isolated event of just feeling lost in the system.”

In addition to being a voice for their clients, EFM social workers say they gain strength from each other.

“I feel the most empowered when I see my coworkers having very similar experiences to me, as someone who's new in the field,” said Cameron Anderson, who joined the EFM team in 2023. “This work is very intimidating, so I appreciate when it feels more like community work, instead of feeling secluded between my coworkers and the families.”

“One of the biggest things for me is leadership. I've always said the reason why I've stayed at MHD as long as I have is leadership and my coworkers,” Sosa said.“That’s who empowers me and makes me want to keep doing what I'm doing.”

“Being able to go back to the office and have all the other social workers and nurses to lean on, being able to talk with your coworkers or supervisors,” recalled Ellie Fitzgerald, who joined EFM in 2023. “It’s super empowering to hear them say, ‘You got this.’”

As we reflect on the invaluable contributions of social workers during National Social Worker Month, the dedication and compassion of those like Schlippmann, Sosa, VanFelder, Fitzgerald, Heise, Bryant, Anderson, and Wright shine brightly. Their unwavering commitment to empowering families in Milwaukee exemplifies the transformative impact of social work in our community.

While facing the multifaceted challenges of poverty, domestic violence, inadequate housing, mental health issues, and food insecurity, these social workers serve as beacons of hope, offering support and advocating for health equity. Their efforts not only strengthen individual families but also foster a more resilient and connected community.

For more information on MHD social workers, please visit MHD’s website: milwaukee.gov/EFM


Cameron Anderson

EFM Public Health Social Worker

Charlene Wright

HEH Public Health Social Worker


Ellie Fitzgerald

EFM Public Health Social Worker

Grace Bryant

EFM Public Health Social Worker

Kathleen Lopez

EFM Public Health Social Worker

Malia Heise

EFM Public Health Social Worker

Monique VanFelder

EFM Public Health Social Worker

Katie Schlipmann

EFM Program Manager

Bianca Sosa

EFM Public Health Social Worker

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