Helping neighbors as he was growing up and experiencing heartbreak while visiting a Romanian orphanage contributed to George Meara's desire to become a social worker at 56.

George Meara's interest in helping people and social work was instilled in him early. Growing up in Queens, N.Y., George remembers his mother giving him the task at age 11 to run to the grocery store each week to help a recently widowed neighbor.

"At the time I never thought much about it, but looking back it reinforces my belief that social work at the community level is effective. Neighbors know neighbors. If a neighbor's husband passes away or has mobility issues, you can help your neighbors and take care of them."

Heartbreaking visit to a Romanian orphanage

George, who is now 56 and lives in Jacksonville, Fla., is a retired veteran and a student in Saint Leo University's online master's in social work program. Helping his neighbor in Queens was only one of several personal experiences that led him to a post-military career in social work.

For example, while serving in the Navy, George would often seek out volunteer opportunities in various ports of call. During a stay in Romania, he visited a local orphanage with fellow sailors to help with minor repairs and bring medical supplies, and what he saw there remains with him to this day.

"The children were just warehoused," he says. "In room after room, cribs were stacked next to each other. There were three workers and hundreds of babies."

One baby girl, in particular, who had a cleft palate, caught George's eye. He reached into her crib and gently stroked her cheek with his pinky finger, but then felt the strong hand of the Romanian security guard on his shoulder.

The guard shook his head no. One of the women in the orphanage, in broken English, told George, "No touch. No get used to touch."

While the experience broke George's heart, it also further strengthened his resolve to continue to do whatever he could to help others.

Pursuing higher education in retirement

After 22 years in the Navy, George retired in 2007. Before he retired, he served as a substance abuse counselor, treating mostly sailors with alcohol abuse problems. Several fellow sailors, including a few who retired before him, told George that higher education would give him more career options in civilian life.

"In the service, you work your way up and can be in charge of multimillion-dollar equipment and dozens people. You have all this responsibility and then get out of the military and have a hard time getting a job anywhere if you don't have a degree," he says.

George earned his associate degree while still in the service and then a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2008. His education and experience led to positions as a substitute teacher, a case manager at a child guidance center, and a family service counselor.

Currently, George is employed as substance abuse counselor for a mental health provider, working with clients who have been charged with DUI. He conducts four group sessions each week, performs assessments of individuals, and counsels clients individually.

While George finds the work rewarding, his goal is to eventually use his military experience in work with veterans – a goal that would require a master of social work degree.

Why Saint Leo's master's in social work program?

Last August, George started Saint Leo's online master's in social work advanced clinical practice program. "The program has already enhanced the work I do now," he says.

George chose Saint Leo's online program because the university is a Catholic, liberal arts-based institution "with an actual brick-and-mortar campus." He was attracted to the three-year program with two classes per semester and also liked the convenience of an online format.

George enjoys his courses and has been impressed with the supportive spirit of faculty, staff, and other classmates. He's also looking forward to taking a trip to Saint Leo's University Campus in June to attend the Military and Veteran Social Work Conference, which will focus on the theme of "Veterans in Transition."

A future helping other vets

Despite the challenges of balancing work, family life, and school, George believes the long-term pay off will be worth it. Although he's not sure exactly where his career will take him after he graduates, he is considering part-time private practice, so he can also spend time with his wife, children and grandchildren.

He still plans, however, to work with wounded warriors and military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"For the rest of my lifetime, there will be plenty of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who will need some sort of mental health counseling assistance," he says, "and I want to be there to serve them."

National Social Work Month

The National Association of Social Workers has designated March as National Social Work Month. For more information about National Social Work Month 2014 or the social work profession, visit

What is your inspiration for wanting to become a social worker?

Images courtesy of George Meara

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Pursuing an Online Masters in Social Work So He Can Make a Difference

Medical Social Work: A Career Helping Families and Patients

Online Social Work Degree Leads to a "Profession of Hope"