Stoughton Courier Hub – 7/16/2015

‘It’s all about relationships’

Mason-Boersma reflects on retirement as JFF social worker

Samantha Christian

Unified Newspaper Group

Perhaps she’s served you pancakes at the Kiwanis breakfast or greeted you at the Personal Essentials Pantry. Or maybe you’ve heard her address topics of homelessness, underage drinking or affordable transportation and housing at meetings for Stoughton Area Resource Team, Stoughton CARES or Stoughton United Ministries.

This is just a sampling of the many volunteer activities Sharon Mason-Boersma has been involved in since she moved to Stoughton in 1981. More than just a familiar face, she’s earned the trust of and helped thousands of struggling families in the Stoughton, Cambridge and Deerfield areas as a Joining Forces for Families (JFF) social worker.

Her supervisor, Ron Chance, community programs manager at Dane County Human Services, has worked with Mason-Boersma since the inception of the JFF initiative, which helps stabilize families, and said she’s a “pretty incredible” person.

“She’s a fierce advocate for low-income and vulnerable families,” he said. “Very few people have I met with her composure and integrity.”

After 17 years in a profession she loves, Mason-Boersma made the difficult decision at age 66 to retire June 1.

“She is clearly irreplaceable – the Jane Addams of Stoughton,” Chance said. “She will be sorely missed.”

But Mason-Boersma said she trusts her supervisor and Dane County Human Services to find someone who will fill that role and do similar things that she accomplished. A new JFF social worker, Lacey Arimond, has already been chosen and will likely start July 27 before the new office opens in a shared space with PEP downtown at 343 E. Main St., a location Mason-Boersma was a driving force behind to increase visibility and accessibility for the people both nonprofits serve.

Even though Mason-Boersma will miss working with those families, she sees it as an opportunity for them and her to grow. She also looks forward to staying connected in the community with many of the same organizations she was involved in when she was employed.

Only now, she’ll have some more time to explore her other interests, such as traveling, and create more memories with her husband, Sid Boersma, and their grown children, Sarah and Andrew.

Mason-Boersma sat down with the Courier Hub on July 2 after returning from a road trip out west to reflect on her career as a social worker and talk about her future aspirations.

Hub: Did you think you’d be retiring at this age (66)?

Mason-Boersma: Yes. Well, as a goal. … I love my job. And I love social work, and I believed in the profession. But, even in spite of that, I just thought, I’m really not getting any younger and I also like to do other things and travel and do volunteer work.

And my daughter is going to be having a baby (she and her husband), in November, and my son’s getting married in June of 2016, and I thought, I just kind of want to devote time to family and to do some other things.

H: Will this be your first grandchild?

M-B: Yes, so I’m so excited. And I didn’t know that when I made this decision, so it’s kind of like frosting on the cake.

H: You just got back from California. Was it the longest trip you’ve had in awhile?

M-B: Yeah, it was. It was two-and-a-half weeks and I loved it. So I thought, OK, this is the time for my husband and I to just see the United States and to see what we’d fly over. And it’s a long way. But it was lovely.

It takes about three days from California. So you really have to have the time. You can’t do this in like an overnight thing, but it was worth it.

H: Where are you from?

M-B: I’m from the Kalamazoo area of Michigan. Moved to Wisconsin in my early 20s and it was due to a job here. And have lived here ever since. And I’ve lived in Stoughton since 1981.

So, my husband and I came here after we got married and we bought our first house in Stoughton, and that’s really why we moved here. We just found the first affordable house, so didn’t know anybody, just moved here.

H: Well, it seems like you’ve grown your network a little bit since you’ve moved here.

M-B: I have, I have. Yeah, and that’s been exciting –  is just to meet people and kind of learn the community, and I got to work in the community and now retire in the community. So I’ve gone through these different stages of my life here.

H: So you have two kids?

M-B: Andrew is 30, Sarah is 32 and again, expect our first grandchild. And they were both raised in Stoughton, went through the Stoughton school system. And now they have both their jobs in Madison. Sarah is a teacher and Andrew works for public works. So they’re close by.

H: What did you first start getting involved with when you got to Stoughton?

M-B: Well, what I was doing at that time was social work, and before we were married in 1981 I was doing social work. And so when we moved to Stoughton after having our children here, I took a five-year respite from social work and actually became a licensed baker. And I sold pies on the square at the farmers market.

After that five years, Andrew was going to start kindergarten and I got a call from human services asking me if I would come back and fill in for somebody for six weeks, and that was in 1990. And I stayed.

H: How long were you a social worker for Joining Forces for Families with Dane County Human Services?

M-B: I had done that job for 17 years. Prior to that, I was a juvenile court worker investigating child abuse and neglect, and I did that for a long time. And just decided, maybe I’d like to do something else.

And the last job, which has made this decision hard for me, was my favorite social work job. Loved it.

H: What is your educational background?

M-B: I graduated in sociology from Wayne State University in Detroit, and then I got my master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in social work.

I was from a really small farming community in Michigan, and so really didn’t know a lot about, oh, people of color and just social work issues and so forth, so I went to Wayne State, which was right in the inner city of Detroit, and I learned a lot about social issues and social justice. And Wayne State was really what had led me to this profession, and I thank that university.

H: Did you just take a sociology class and think, “Oh, I’d like to take more”?

M-B: Yes. I started out actually as a French major and I had a lot of foreign language education when I started at Wayne State. And I did that for about two-and-a-half years, and along that way, for a liberalized degree at Wayne State you needed to also take sociology or psychology. I did that. And I loved it. And so then I decided to change my major and I took about 65 credits of sociology.

I do think that education for my job that I just retired from with Joining Forces for Families, it really helped me understand the infrastructure, issues of poverty, issues of homelessness, resources that are helpful for people, and again, that was sort of reinforced with my master’s degree training.

H: There must have been some heavy things going on at work every day. What kept you coming back to the social work field and helped you stay motivated?

M-B: The people I work with. I learned a lot from my clients and the people that I served. And I worked most of the time with children, youth and family in the county system, and I just knew that you could always learn from the people you work with.

And again, I believe in social work as a helping agent, so I do think that we try to help people either navigate the system, learn more about themselves, help them with resources, and I think empowerment and advocacy are huge in social work. And so combining all of those kinds of opportunities for people is really important.

I think (it’s) that strong belief that you can make a difference.

H: Did you have any role models once you got into the field?

M-B: Yes, again, there was a professor at Wayne State that I remember, who really talked about social reform, social change. And he was the head of the city council in Detroit, and he was a professor part time at Wayne State. He was a great role model.

And I do think people like, there’s another man called Alfred Kadushin, and he was from Madison, and he was also a professor. He’s written a lot of books on child welfare. And he was a wonderful role model. I think he’s deceased now, he was pretty old when I went to school. But he was great.

So I think again, professors, teachers, people that are involved in social justice, they’re really good role models for what we do. I think that’s important for social workers, because, like you say, we can get kind of depressed or we can get kind of down, can we really change whatever it is? And boy, I think social workers really need to sort of refresh, replenish, look at people who have really made a difference.

H: You’ve been out of your position for a month now. Have you reflected on your career and what you want to do in the future?

M-B: I did along the way. Again, it was a challenging decision for me … what my goal would be, and I think it was in terms of, besides the traveling and spending time with family and gardening and all that good stuff, is to do volunteer work and to also continue to be on boards and committees like I was when I was employed and working full-time.

And I’m also excited about that, because that will be doing something a little bit different, in terms of I’ll have more time to devote, I won’t have a caseload and I won’t have the daily contacts with different people that come through human services, and so I’m excited about that. And also, doing volunteer work on some projects that I think are needs in Stoughton and in general in Dane County and Wisconsin. Some legislative issues that are concerning for me, such as providing better dental care for people that are on medical assistance … I’d like to work on that.

(And) literacy is a big one. I just feel that our literacy rate in the United States is really shocking. So, working with some literacy organizations to promote better literacy for not just Stoughton but just the overall area, for our country. So there are some global kinds of goals as well as community goals.

H: What causes would you like to be involved in specifically in Stoughton?

M-B: I’m going to continue to be on the Stoughton CARES board, and as well as in the other communities.

I would really, for Stoughton, continue to be promoting more affordable housing as an option for people and working on the housing advocacy team. I’d also be promoting more transportation alternatives, affordable transportation, and that’s Stoughton United Ministries, as well as Pathways to Self Sufficiency (program) that also has a homelessness component to it as far as services.

Continuing to be on the board for the START Program. Let’s see, what else? Personal Essentials Pantry, of course. But there might be some other committees that I might be interested in regarding looking at literacy.

I’d like to volunteer more for Head Start here in Stoughton. So I’ve got some ideas. Exactly what I’ll be doing with those organizations I’m not sure.

I will be doing volunteering just to help some people in need in the community. And I’ve been doing a little bit of that already right after I retired officially, (just) not under the umbrella of Dane County Human Services.

H: Were you also involved in Relay for Life at one time?

M-B: I was involved in Relay, yes … I withdrew from Relay for some reasons that I’m still, I’m not sure I agree with the American Cancer Society on some issues. And so I’d still like to look at cancer prevention and (I’d also like to) see if there are ways to provide more cancer prevention resources for people, particularly in Stoughton, and that’s another thing on my list to look at, and see what agencies would be willing to do that.

Specifically, when I was working as a JFF worker, I would have cancer survivors, cancer victims, and they would have to go through treatment and couldn’t pay their rent, they couldn’t pay their electricity. Especially single parents. And it’s like, what do you do?

So I just thought, I need to really advocate, because I really believe in advocacy, for organizations, and empowering my clients to advocate for themselves … but it’s so important to people’s not just physical health but emotional health.

H: Is it going to be difficult for you to say goodbye to the families you’ve worked with almost two decades?

M-B: It’s tough for me, it’s tough for them. But it’s also a way for us to grow. I mean, they have compassion for me in terms of, she has another life, she wants to do these things. And they appreciate that. They’re very respectful. And I respect them.

And, when my replacement comes, and she’s coming Aug. 1, then my role will be, and I’ve already gotten the OK from my former supervisor, to transition to her. And that will feel good. Because transition is so important.

And again, it’s all about relationships. And that’s what I’ve learned in social work, it’s all about those relationships and trying to bond, trying to trust, trying to just cement that relationship.

H: What has been the most rewarding part of your job?

M-B: The most rewarding is being able to help people with resources and to connect them with resources that I thought were in their best interests, but also to give them confidence to help them through a difficult experience or experiences.

And to (have) that trust level, that confidence, that empowerment or whatever it would be, whatever that issue was. That was the most fulfilling for me. The other thing too, regarding that fulfillment, was they would thank me. That was good, that was the best.

I wasn’t mandated to be involved with them in those last 17 years. I was prior to that, because I was a mandated social worker investigating abuse and neglect, and there was a real difference in terms of my role, you know. They could come to me for help or they didn’t have to come. It was purely voluntary on their part … And that’s a huge difference.

Whereas as a mandated social worker monitoring delinquency, abuse and neglect, the law says, the kids need to be protected. And you need to investigate, you need to follow up … and that’s a whole different arena.

I like both (jobs), but I saw a real difference in terms of what people would tell me about themselves and just open up. I mean that’s just human nature.

I think working with community stakeholders is incredibly important for empowering people in the community, and that would be law enforcement, public health, school people, crisis intervention representatives and just community residents in general. They would also really help the people they were working with, and as a team, we could then do this together, and that’s totally important.

H: Have you pretty much always had the support of those offices in Stoughton?

M-B: All three communities. Yeah, yeah, it’s been great. And communities are different, it’s very interesting, because when I first took the job 17 years ago I was assigned four communities (Marshall, Cambridge, Deerfield and Stoughton). Naively, I thought, well, communities are communities, oh, they’re all the same. Not so much at all.

H: Stoughton has been home for you for awhile now. What do you enjoy most about it?

M-B: I like the fact, especially over the last few years, that I do see resources and community services expanding. And that’s extremely exciting to see. I think that Stoughton is becoming more aware of the expansion of some of these social issues that are challenging the people in need.

The other thing I like about it is that I like the downtown and, one reason we moved here, and not just because we had an affordable house, but it’s independent from Madison, so you can go to the post office here, you can shop here, you always don’t have to go to Madison for stuff, and that’s a good thing.

H: In the last five or 10 years, what have been the rising social issues that you’ve seen more of?

M-B: Homelessness. When I first started this job 17 years ago, we were more focused as JFF workers on truancy issues, and that’s important, and some of the maybe not so major basic need items, where we could do more counseling, more one-on-one in terms of helping with school issues.

Now, since 2008 when the economy took a turn, we’re more focused on basic need issues than ever. That would be homelessness, trying to get food, trying to get medical help to people, more emergency kinds of things so that’s where the focus has been. And that’s not just Stoughton, that’s (everywhere).

H: Would you say truancy issues are decreasing?

M-B: Truancy issues are probably not (decreasing). Probably still an issue. But in terms of you know, now we couple that with, maybe the child is homeless … and maybe they don’t have transportation to get the child to school. And that’s even more complicated with maybe they don’t have a job. So the truancy then took on a kind of a different, more complex, what’s the reason that’s the child’s not in school…

H: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment through work, specifically through JFF?

M-B: That’s a tough question. Again, building relationships with families. That voluntary piece is probably the key for JFF, building voluntary relationships with families. That’s really the accomplishment. Between social worker and client.

The other accomplishment for JFF too is finding a new site for JFF. And I feel really good about that … because people need to be aware of what JFF is, and to utilize the new site downtown is totally important.

And I’m really thankful that the county supports that, because I know it means looking at the budget and we have the human services building on the corner and I’m so thankful that the building stayed open because it was up for sale for awhile …

And I’m so thankful (that it stayed open) in terms of accessibility for people to utilize that department and also thankful for the fact that the county has put in the two computers that can be used for the public, so more resources that are free, that will help people as tools to get employment and to get services and resources and public assistance programs that they’re entitled to is really huge for them.


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