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Social Worker, Katrina Survivor: “West Virginia Chose Me”

Social worker Jennifer Wells says West Virginia was a caring refuge, just when she needed one. (J. Wells)
Social worker Jennifer Wells says West Virginia was a caring refuge, just when she needed one. (J. Wells)
April 24, 2017

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Social worker Jennifer Wells says West Virginia chose her after Hurricane Katrina drove her out of her old home. And now her profession inspires her to make her new home a better place.

Wells is one of four young women delivering the keynote at the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia spring conference this week in Charleston. The theme will be "West Virginia Chose Me.”

She said in her case, it happened when she was a refugee from Hurricane Katrina brought to the state with her family in 2005 by a National Guard plane.

"West Virginia was just a welcome arm that opened up for us,” Wells said. "And the decision after about four weeks became very easy that, in order to keep our sanity, staying here in West Virginia was the best choice."

She said the first help they got was, "from the hand of a social worker" - folks who see something wrong and just naturally try to fix it. She said she hopes the keynote presentation will help others in the audience see the value of the help and community organization that social workers provide.

Wells said social work leads to activism, because they see problems firsthand as a web of interconnected issues that can only really be addressed by broad-based policies.

"Make it easier for somebody to find a home. Make it easier for somebody to find a treatment bed. Make it easier for a child to get into college and stay in college,” Wells said; “not doing the work for them, but helping them build themselves up so they can speak for exactly what they need."

Wells is now working as a community organizer for the Our Children, Our Future Campaign - part of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. She said in many ways, that role is a natural outgrowth of the kindness she saw when she first arrived in Cabell County after leaving New Orleans.

Wells said social workers made it possible for her to be in college almost immediately.

"My brother and I entered Marshall a couple of weeks after we got here,” she said. "The Huntington community completely enveloped my family and I, and even offered help before we quite knew what we needed."

The NASW West Virginia Spring Conference is the largest event of its kind in the country.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV