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Saint Leo University Honors Trailblazers At ‘Influential Women In Social Work’ Event

United Way of Pasco County and Cheryl Pollock of Premier Community HealthCare were among the honorees along with students, faculty, and former faculty.

Tags: Bachelor of Social Work Center for Adult Learning at University Campus College of Health Professions Core Values Ethics Experiential learning Health Care Master of Social Work Mental Health Saint Leo WorldWide Social Justice Social Work University Campus
7 March 2024 - By University Communications

As a social worker, an educator, and a passionate advocate for legislation and policy change, Dawn Brown was a fitting keynote speaker for Saint Leo University’s third annual Influential Women in Social Event on Tuesday, March 5. 


Brown is the executive director for the National Association of Social Workers Florida and Virgin Islands Chapters, member of the NASW-FL PACE (Political Action for Candidate Election), and part of the NASW National Delegate Assembly. 

Sponsored by Saint Leo’s Undergraduate Social Work Department, the event celebrates National Social Work Month as well as Women’s History Month. This year’s event honored students, agencies, and members of the community for the work they do to promote social work and aid the community. 

“Even on my worst day, I am blessed to do what I do,” Brown said of the social work profession. “And there is power in numbers. In 2020, there were 715,000 social workers and in 2023, the prediction is there will be 780,000.” 

Brown encouraged everyone to “cultivate social workers who are representative of the individuals, communities, and families that we serve.” She noted that she is the first Black woman president of NASW-FL in 50 years. “It’s challenging that in 2024, we’re still having ‘firsts,’ but I will make sure that I am not the last.”

She emphasized that self-care should be encouraged among social workers and taught to social work students.  “How do we model that?” she asked of those who serve as supervisors and educators. 

Lastly, she told students — and those gathered for the event — to vote. “You have a responsibility to the broader society.” 

It also is important “we show up for others on this journey,” Brown said. “Practice not only self-care, but community-care in all that you do.” 

NASW-FL Awards Presented
Those who make a difference in their communities also were honored at the event with awards presented by NASW-FL and Saint Leo’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program. Yvenie Desrosiers was named the Student of the Year – Nature Coast


This award is given to a student who demonstrates outstanding leadership while contributing to a positive image for the social work profession. Additionally, they must take risks to achieve exceptional results on behalf of social work students or social work education. “As her faculty member, internship supervisor, and overall fan, I am honored to recognize Yvenie Desrosiers for her outstanding contributions to the social work department here at Saint Leo and her dedication to fostering positive change within the larger community,” said Christina Cazanave, director of internships and instructor. “Yvenie has exemplified a commitment to social work values and ethics through her exceptional work in voter engagement. . . Her leadership in coordinating various community service projects has not only enriched the lives of those we serve, it also inspired her peers to become more actively involved in addressing the needs of our local community.”

United Way of Pasco County was the recipient of the Rising to the Challenge award for its outstanding contributions to combating human and labor trafficking in Pasco County and statewide. This honor goes to an agency that makes a significant contribution to its community in need. 


This past year, United Way of Pasco County, in an effort to combat trafficking, worked with several sheriff offices, police departments, mental health agencies, substance abuse recovery programs, health clinics, criminal justice programs, employment programs, education programs like at Saint Leo University, medical offices performing scar and tattoo removals, dental offices, and several other agencies throughout the state housing and wrap-around services, Cazanave said. She presented the award to Chuck Anderson, president and CEO of United Way of Pasco County. He also holds a social work degree. 

Cheryl Pollock, chief advancement & community engagement officer at Premier Community HealthCare, received the Public Citizen of the Year Award – Nature Coast. This award goes to someone who significantly contributes to an area or population of concern to the social work profession. 


“Cheryl Pollock personifies these qualities with her exceptional contributions to the Pasco and Hernando communities for access to affordable health care,” Cazanave said. While she is not a social worker, she has the heart of social worker, she added. As an executive for Premier, Pollock is responsible for mission advancement through resource development, community engagement, community-based programs, and much more. Additionally, she is responsible for numerous partnerships with Saint Leo University by being an internship supervisor and hosting numerous classroom presentations on community engagement and grant writing.

BSW student Kara Pinder presented Christina Cazanave with the Social Work Educator of the Year award noting how as a Saint Leo faculty member Cazanave had helped unlock her passion for social work. “You have given us so many reasons to be excited,” Pinder said about Cazanave’s teaching and mentorship of her students. “One word to describe you is inspirational.” 

Education Trailblazers Honored
The Influential Women of Social Work honored four “visionaries,” who helped grow, promote, and influence social work education: Dr. Cindy Lee, Dr. Marguerite McInnis, Dr. Rhonda Waddell, and the late Dr. William “Bill” Day. 


Lee is the director of Saint Leo’s Center for Alternative Pathway Programs (CAPP), which provides micro-credential, specialized learning, and corporate training programs. But before that, she was a trailblazer, creating and directing Saint Leo University’s Master of Social Work Program from its inception in 2009 until 2019. 

“Under Dr. Lee’s leadership, the MSW program at Saint Leo has emerged as a beacon of innovation and excellence in the field of social work education,” said Dr. Ebony Perez, chair of the Undergraduate Social Work Department and associate professor. “Through her tireless efforts, she has not only developed a rigorous and comprehensive curriculum. but has also pioneered new approaches to online learning that ensure students receive the highest quality education, no matter where they are.”

Perez said that perhaps most importantly, “Dr. Lee's passion for excellence and her unwavering belief in the potential of her students have transformed lives.”

Waddell, former associate dean and assistant professor of social work at Saint Leo, was recognized for “consistently demonstrating a remarkable ability to think outside the box, and I think her mission was to blow up the box,” Perez said. “As a practitioner, Dr. Waddell's therapeutic goal is to foster healing relationships that enhance personal growth, empowerment, and well-being. Drawing upon a diverse range of modalities, including communication skills, meditation, journaling, connection with nature, animal-assisted therapy, and art therapy, she has touched the lives of many individuals, guiding them on their journey towards holistic wellness.”

McInnis, former chair of Saint Leo’s Social Work Program, demonstrated an unwavering commitment to addressing the most pressing issues facing our society today, Perez said. “Through her tireless efforts, she has organized conferences that tackle topics at the forefront of social work intervention, providing a platform for meaningful dialogue and collaboration among professionals in the field,” she continued. “Her dedication to bringing together experts and thought leaders to address critical issues such as mental health is a testament to her visionary leadership and her steadfast commitment to advancing social justice. “One such initiative that Dr. McInnis has been instrumental in supporting is the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program, which provides vital advocacy for abused, abandoned, or neglected children.”

Day held various roles, including positions at Florida State Hospital and University Hospital in Jacksonville, and for 25 years was the program manager of the Counseling and Human Services Program at Hillsborough Community College. “Dr. Day's legacy of service and commitment to the people of Florida and the field of counseling will be remembered and cherished by all who had the privilege of knowing him,” Perez said. 

Scholarships Awarded to BSW Students

Thanks to the generosity of The Renew Group and its president, Dr. Leven “Chuck” Wilson, three scholarships were awarded during the March 5 event to Saint Leo University students pursuing Bachelor of Social Work degrees.

Emily Hernandez is the recipient of a $2,000 scholarship. “Her academic success is driven by the fact that only 11% of Latinos pursue higher education,” Perez said. “As a Latina woman, her goal is to contribute to raising that statistic not only through her own personal success but also through helping others as a school social worker focusing on first-generation students.”

Hernandez is an Honors Program student, president of the Social Work Club, LEAD scholar, and the campus news editor for The Lions’ Pride Media Group. 

Jalessa Murray received a $1,000 scholarship. “She is a dedicated student who is committed to combatting social injustices and advocating for marginalized populations,” Perez said. “She has a genuine desire to make a positive impact on the lives of individuals facing adversity, a strong commitment to social justice, and has been extensively involved in community outreach programs and her pursuits in social work.” 

Wendy Smith is the recipient of a $500 scholarship. After a career in real estate, Smith decided to pursue her passion for others through a career in social work. “She has returned to school to help people who have suffered from trauma and mental health challenges,” Perez said in awarding the scholarship. “Wendy is currently a junior in our hybrid program option. She looks forward to using her skillset to encourage and empower people to achieve their goals.”


VOT-ER Recognition

Saint Leo social work students also were recognized for being No. 1 in the nation in the VOT-ER student-led voter registration competition. “In 2023, Saint Leo crushed it,” said Bianco Navarro, field director for the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that integrates civic engagement into health care.

The Why Vote effort by the Saint Leo students resulted in 553 voter registrations in two months. “I’m in awe of this team,” said Reid Garnett of VOT-ER.