Helping clients deal with illness and the grief that may follow is part of a social worker’s professional career. Maintaining a sense of hope and compassion throughout that can be difficult. UCF Social Work alumna Erica Sirrine, MSW’00, perfectly balances those needs in her role as the director of social work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. At St. Jude, Sirrine leads more than 30 social workers at its Tennessee facility and works directly with clients, while simultaneously strengthening St. Jude as a national and international leader in children’s healthcare social work.
Sirrine spent 14 years in academia, but found herself drawn back into the field to serve as director of social work when the opportunity came up at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“Even when a patient’s prognosis is positive, children and their families still experience a great sense of loss, and we don’t always hold space for the loss and the grief that accompany a diagnosis.”
“It was a privilege working with and learning from students, but I missed practice. In my first job as a hospital social worker, I found myself drawn to the spaces where other medical service providers and colleagues were afraid to enter,” said Sirrine who has predominately worked with families facing illness and treatments with indeterminate outcomes. “Even when a patient’s prognosis is positive, children and their families still experience a great sense of loss, and we don’t always hold space for the loss and the grief that accompany a diagnosis,” said Sirrine.
Sirrine found that the lack of grief and bereavement counseling resources initiated her interest in pursuing a Ph.D. and working with this population, especially in pediatrics.
“At St. Jude, I now have the privilege of walking alongside patients and families in some of their most difficult circumstances,” said Sirrine. “Throughout my social work career, I have witnessed some of the greatest love stories filled with extraordinary acts of resilience, compassion and strength. Sometimes, my clients may not see their own potential, but I get to watch people accomplish things they didn’t know they had the capacity within themselves to do.”
“Throughout my social work career, I have witnessed some of the greatest love stories filled with extraordinary acts of resilience, compassion and strength.”
Sirrine believes that UCF prepared her to commit to being a “life-long learner” and to grow with her profession in order to provide the best care for her clients.
“There’s a saying: ‘If a human being is capable of something, then so am I.’ While practicing social work in the ‘real world,’ have I seen humanity at its worst? Yes. But, I’ve also had the privilege of witnessing people at their very best, extending compassion and support to one another, and overcoming tremendous obstacles. Rather than focusing on the negative, I choose to view my work through a strengths-based lens. My clients have taught me incredible lessons about life, loss, love and resilience,” said Sirrine.
Recognizing that burn-out and compassion fatigue are very real stressors that can affect social work professionals, Sirrine credits her faith, family and her active participation in Camp Braveheart – a grief camp for children facing loss – as ways to practice self-care.
“One of the things that I asked for when I interviewed at St. Jude was the ability to continue volunteering at Camp Braveheart,” she said. “Participating in activities like horseback riding, canoeing, healing circles, and memorialization activities, including letter writing, gives me a window seat into the lives of children who are grieving. Spending time with my cabin—the ‘Moon Beams’—is the highlight of my 21-year career!”
Sirrine says that throughout her professional journey the common thread has always been her desire to continuously improve.
“My advice to social work students is to recognize you’re not supposed to know everything,” advises Sirrine. “The Council on Social Work Education says internship is the signature pedagogy and we learn in the field. My professors beautifully taught me that my MSW education was only for a season and, then, I needed to commit to life-long learning and continued growth for myself, and my clients.”