TAMPA – In celebration of Women’s History Month and Social Work Month, Saint Leo University recognized the extraordinary contributions of women in social work at an event at its Tampa Education Center and online via Zoom. Influential Women of Social Work, held on International Women’s Day (March 8), celebrated the women (and men) who study and join this helping profession.

Not only was it a celebration of those who give back to their communities, but it also was a time to create new legacies in social work as four Saint Leo University students received scholarships from Leven “Chuck” Wilson, president and CEO of The Renew Group. The event also recognized those who are making contributions in the field as awards were presented by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Nature Coast Unit.

Actor and Grammy-winning R&B and hip-hop artist Paul Anthony, from the legendary group Full Force, surprised those attending the event with a welcome on behalf of Saint Leo and the undergraduate social work program. A friend of Wilson’s, Anthony also was a social worker prior to a career in the entertainment world. Later in the program, social work professionals and educators from throughout the country shared their greetings and well wishes for those in attendance.

Dr. Yarneccia Dyson

Keynote speaker Dr. Yarneccia Dyson, associate professor of the University of North Carolina Greensboro Department of Social Work and Gerontology Program, spoke about “heart work,” noting that social work is hard work, but it also is heart work. 

Dyson believes in the adage “Lift as you climb,” noted Dr. Ebony Perez, chair of Saint Leo’s undergraduate social work program. Dyson also is a member of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Taskforce to Advance Anti-Racism in Social Work Education. Her research interests focus on improving the health, access, and well-being of historically oppressed communities, mentoring experiences for Black women and women of color, as well as improving the sexual and reproductive outcomes among women and girls and Black college students.

She offered sound advice not only for BSW students, but also for everyone: “Any time you interact with someone, they should leave better for having interacted with you,” Dyson said. 

Attendees listen to Dr. Yarneccia Dyson

Every day is not “unicorns and glitter,” she said of working in the social work profession. “There are some hard days,” Dyson said. But the heart work is what matters. “And you have to be happy and balanced yourself.”

Mentoring matters, she said. She advised to look for formal mentoring as well as informal mentoring. “Eighty to 85 percent of my mentoring has been informal,” Dyson said. “I’ll say, ‘I like what you do. Will you be my mentor?’”

The Next Generation of Social Work

Wilson holds many titles: CEO, social worker, therapist, author, community activist, and now supporter of Saint Leo University’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students. He donated and created four scholarships for undergraduate social work students, which were presented by Saint Leo’s Perez at the event. 

Receiving BSW scholarships to be used for the Fall 2022 Semester are:

  • Natalie Vega, a junior at the Tampa Education Center, received at $500 scholarship. “Natalie is in the top 5 percent of students I’ve ever worked with,” Perez said in announcing the honor.
  • Anne Chaves, a sophomore studying at University Campus, the university’s residential campus, received a $500 scholarship. Her application letter for the scholarship wowed the selection committee, Perez said, who noted Chaves began advocating for social justice while she still was a high school student.
  • Alyssa D’Aiello, a junior who is in the blended program taking evening and weekend classes at University Campus, is “committed to the practice of social work,” Perez said. D’Aiello received a $500 scholarship.
  • Megan Rowe, a junior who studies at University Campus, earned the $1,000 scholarship. “Megan is a social work power house,” Perez said. Rowe is the vice president of the Social Work Club, and she advocates for social justice and is a social change agent on campus, Perez added. [group photo of four award winners]

Enhancing and Growing the Profession

One of the sponsors of the Saint Leo event, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Florida Chapter – Nature Coast, presented awards to outstanding practitioners, students, community members, and educators. NASW is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, said Christina Cazanave, who chairs the Nature Coast unit and presented the awards.

Cazanave, director of field placement for Saint Leo’s BSW program and an instructor of social work, noted that the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “Break the Bias.” This theme spotlights the individual and collective biases against women that fuel gender inequality, she said. The theme for Social Work Month is “The Time is Right for Social Work.” As the nation and the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, many turned to social workers for assistance and support.

Sarah Sharina, Brendan Bernsley, and Maria Santos were honored by NASW

Cazaneve presented the following awards:

  • Social Worker of the Year – Sarah Shirina, supervisor of BayCare Behavioral Health’s Mobile Response Team in Hernando and Pasco counties. Sarah works closely with law enforcement and schools to support students and their families experiencing suicidal ideation or peer or family conflict,” Cazanave said. “Under the supervision of Sarah, the Mobile Response Team has been able to provide students with much-needed support throughout the COVID pandemic to support them in times of both emotional and behavioral crisis. Most importantly, she highlights the need for social workers and displays a positive image for the profession each day.”
  • Social Work Student of the Year – Brendan Bernsley, a junior in the BSW program, who has a 3.979 GPA. He is an active member of the Social Work Club at University Campus and is working with university leadership to begin a student club called "Change the Game." The organization's mission is to provide students with disabilities an opportunity to be on an athletic team. Change the Game aims to increase the diversity in athletic participation through accessible modified sporting events. “Brendan's enthusiasm and passion are contagious,” Cazanave said.
  • Public Citizen of the Year – Maria Santos, a social worker since 2017. After receiving her bachelor's degree in social work focused on child welfare, Santos served as a Child Protective Investigator (CPI) before earning her master's degree in clinical social work from Florida State University. “During her graduate studies, Maria worked for Tallahassee Community College's (TCC) Eagle Connections Program,” Cazanave said. “In this role, she served as a mentor, facilitator for person-centered planning sessions, and curriculum developer, focusing on social, independent living, and employability skills for students with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder. Maria is currently working toward her LCSW to diagnose and treat mental health disorders under her license.”

She is working in Saint Leo’s Office of Accessibility Services, making higher education accessible for students across the university.

  • Rising to the Challenge – Feeding Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization that is leading the charge in combating hunger in the Tampa area and supplying critical food needs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Food insecurity can affect anyone: our neighbors, coworkers, the elderly, and those who are layoff or never predicted this need,” Cazanave said. Feeding Tampa Bay provides food assistance to 10 counties from Citrus to Hardee, through programs such as the Trinity Café and grocery distribution centers. “By meeting the call, Feeding Tampa Bay is rising to the challenge and is a faithful ally, community partner, and trailblazer in the Tampa Bay area,” Cazanave said.
  • Social Work Educator of the Year – Christina Cazanave. Perez surprised Cazanave with the honor for her tireless work with Saint Leo’s students and generating field placement opportunities. “She has totally transformed our field service,” Perez said. “She is a dynamic educator, and you will not simply sit in her class. She employs an active-learning strategy, and she will push you beyond your boundaries.”
Dr. Ebony Perez presents Christina Cazanave with NASW Social Work Educator of the Year award

Cazanave earned her Master of Social Work degree at the University of Central Florida. Prior to becoming a Saint Leo faculty member, she worked as a social work practitioner for 10 years, primarily with at-risk children and teens in the foster care and educational systems. Cazanave's concentration of studies includes macro social work—community and organizational change.

Making History

“The event was a great way to acknowledge all of the women in social work who have made a remarkable difference in everyone’s lives,” said Dr. Susan Kinsella, dean of the College of Education and Social Services. “History shows us that people like Jane Addams, Ida Wells, Francis Perkins, and Mary Richmond made considerable strides for all humankind. Several were involved with the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, Jane started settlement houses for immigrants, Ada was a journalist who wrote about racial justice, Francis was the first women to become U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt, and Mary Richmond wrote the first textbook and standards for social work. So many men and women work every day to provide services to children, adolescents, adults and the elderly, but we recognize the remarkable works of only a few. As a social worker myself, I am proud of our training and the knowledge, values, and skills we learn that enables us to work in a variety of settings to advocate, counsel, advise, and negotiate with clients, agencies, and community partners.”

Find Out More

Saint Leo University is hosting information sessions for its Bachelor of Social Work degree programs so those interested in joining this profession may learn more. Sessions will be held at 6 p.m., March 24, April 26, and May 25. Classes for Fall 2 Semester begin August 22. For more information, email yvonne.montell@saintleo.edu or matthew.lenihan@saintleo.edu.

In addition, Saint Leo University offers a Master of Social Work degree. For information, email kara.marino@saintleo.edu.