May 8, 2006 — With her bright smile and big heart, Education Department social worker Marissa Vazquez does what she can to make her students' lives better.
"I love my job, and I love making a difference," she said, standing outside her office at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. "Every part of the day I'm dealing with kids — with their problems and issues — and it's important for me to try to do what I can to help them solve whatever they need to be solved."
During the week that means providing counseling to special education students at Cancryn and Charlotte Amalie High School – a job she shares with about six other social workers who alternate days at other public schools around the island. Vazquez explained that she sees her students weekly and talks to them about behavioral issues, family problems and sometimes provides referrals to other agencies to assist with any problems.
However, after a few minutes spent talking with Vazquez, it is obvious that she does much more than that – such as organizing field trips for her students to Puerto Rico and St. John, or bringing in speakers to talk to them about crime, drugs and the importance of continuing with their education.
"Many of our students live with female parents, and we have a lot of female teachers in our school system, so I think it's good to let the students hear things from a male perspective," she said. "For example, we've brought in the Narcotics Strike Force to talk to the kids about what they do and had their special agents explain how they confiscate weapons and those kinds of things. We also had the assistant warden from the Bureau of Corrections come in and talk to the kids about what's happening in the prisons."
"And sometimes the kids are shocked to hear these things," she continued. "But they need to hear it – they need to be exposed to what's going on."
Organizing off-island field trips is another way Vazquez "exposes" her students to life. "The fieldtrips came up when I first started working with the department – when I talked to the kids and realized that many of them had never been exposed to other cultures. Some of them had never even been to St. John. And I wanted them to experience other languages, people of different backgrounds, so we went on field trips to different historical sites, where they could benefit from some of the things they learned while having fun."
The trips, she said, target the "most disadvantaged students" in the special education program and are subsidized through donations from the community, fund-raisers and through Vazquez's own pocketbook. "Most of the time, when I go out into the community and I ask for assistance, I really see that people go out of their way to help," she said. "Edward Thomas [Executive Director of the West Indian Co. Ltd], for example, has helped three times with our Puerto Rico trips, and many others have helped with our excursions into St. John. There are some times when I do help pay for some of the students, because some of them really can't afford to do it, and it wouldn't be fair if they weren't able to go."
While Vazquez said she had recently taken a brief hiatus from organizing the trips, she said it is something that she plans on continuing in the future. However, she is currently concentrating on some of the other issues facing students and parents in the community.
"We have several things we're dealing with, including the fact that it is sometimes very difficult for some of the parents to understand what kind of attention or what kind of medical services their kid needs. The funny thing is that kids can have a normal conversation with you, and you don't realize anything is wrong, but when it comes to academics – when the student isn't performing – you know right away there's a problem. Sometimes parents don't understand things like that."
Compounding the problem, she said, is that parents are "getting younger and younger" and are sometimes unable to understand that their child has a disabling condition. "What they need as parents, are a lot of special skills and the training necessary to handle their child," she said.
However, Vazquez said that what keeps her going is that she is still able to see many students progressing within the public school system and is constantly interacting with parents "who want the best for their kids."
While the lack of social workers in the department is also another challenge, Vazquez said that she has also taken time to work on making sure special education students have the opportunity to take regular classes within the public school system. "These kids are just the same as regular teenagers," she said. "And we're working on incorporating them into the regular classes. We also encourage parents to encourage their child to do well in school, to continue with the things that they're good at, because it's very exciting to go out into the community and see what they're doing."
She said that she has had the opportunity to work with students from elementary school to the high school level, and has seen former students become cosmetologists, chefs, and retailers.
"It's quite rewarding when you see that they have made it," she said. "To me, that is the greatest blessing. And I thank God for the position I'm in, because I really feel that it's my purpose. I really do plan on doing this for awhile."
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