Musings from a 45-year career in social work: the door is open to your future

“I got to work with students who are just at that wonderful point of deciding what they want to do with their career.” – Mary Carraher

Last month, Field Education Coordinator Mary Carraher retired from the School of Social Work, bookending a career that includes work with the developmentally disabled, children and youth, homeless families, and just prior to CSU, 25 years as executive director for Project Self-Sufficiency, a non-profit assisting single parents in Larimer County.

Yet, considering her plans, it could be said you don’t ever retire from social work. “I want to be unstructured for a while,” Carraher said. “If I want to go down to the Capitol and advocate for something, I can just decide that day I’m driving to Denver to testify on a topic that means something to me.”

Originally from Columbus, Nebraska, Carraher holds her M.S.W. from the University of Denver with an emphasis in social planning and administration. Her expertise includes program development and management, grant proposal writing, fund development and community relations, all skills which served her well as an executive director.

Early in her career, after receiving her undergraduate degree in social work from the University of Nebraska, Carraher gained direct service experience working with individuals and families, but quickly decided she could have more impact working with larger systems in an administrative and advocacy role.

Career highlights in non-profit administration

During the time Carraher worked with Project Self-Sufficiency, the organization grew from a budget of about $60K to $1.2M and added a scholarship fund, a child care grant program, an emergency fund for families, a children’s enrichment fund, a program to meet transportation needs, a volunteer car repair program, self-esteem building classes, a holiday assistance fund, and enhanced career planning services.

Making a difference in the lives of individuals remained her primary motivation. “It was the contact with the clients I enjoyed the most, because they really were on a path to accomplishment and supporting their families in a different way, with a career they could be excited about,” Carraher said. “It gave me the energy to do the other things.”

Carraher appreciated that Project Self-Sufficiency became large enough to have a real impact yet small enough to be nimble. “I had staff who went on to other jobs and later came back and said, ‘If I had a client in crisis, I knew I could come to you and ask for help, and you would write a check, and it would take two hours. Now I spend days trying to talk somebody into giving some resources.’ We were just able to respond so quickly.”

Carraher has been known to stand on a street corner in Loveland to advocate for issues she cares about.

Carraher received multiple honors for her work, including the 2013 Collaborator of the Year Award presented by United Way of Larimer County, the 2012 Service Above Self Award presented by the Rotary Club of Fort Collins, a 2010 “Women of Distinction” award presented by the Northern Colorado Business Report, and the 2008 Robert L. Hawkins Social Work Achievement Award from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

Fresh inspiration from CSU students

At CSU, Carraher got back to the direct engagement she enjoys, counseling social work students through the process of finding the right field internship. “It was the most enjoyable part of my job,” she said. “I got to work with students who are just at that wonderful point of deciding what they want to do with their career.”

“Mary is well known and respected in our community—a local hero,” said Director of Field Education Susan Tungate. “We were thrilled to welcome her as a member of the field education program team. We appreciated her compassion, creativity, her many connections in our community, her willingness to go the extra mile for our students, and her persistent advocacy on their behalf.”

Advice for B.S.W. majors

Carraher said students come to the task of choosing a field placement with varying expectations, and offers students some insight to get the internship they want: “Sometimes students do it all on their own; they already have a relationship with an organization, and all I had to do was the formality around it. That’s nice because the student has a sense of feeling empowered that they could do it for themselves.”

“Many students don’t have those kinds of connections, so I took that really seriously, trying to get everybody into the best fit,” said Carraher. “If you have a strong opinion about the placement you want, get your application in early. Your field coordinator can get you into the office early, get your resume out early, and you’ll be ahead of the game.”

“Current students who took that to heart were placed very early because they went home that night and did their application and got it in,” added Carraher. She also encourages students not to wait just because they don’t know what they want.

“In high school I had a paper due on a career I was interested in,” said Carraher. “Options for women weren’t very broad at that point. Women were secretaries, teachers or nurses. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you look into social work?’ Where she came up with that idea I do not know. I was first generation. Nobody in my family had finished college prior to me.”

“So you never know where the idea will come from for you. I saw myself as the equivalent of students’ employment counselor, opening doors to their future for them,” added Carraher. “I just loved spending that time getting acquainted with students, and when somebody let me know they got a field placement, that was really exciting.”

“Kindness, caring, dedication and devotion to our students all describe Mary,” said Tungate. “We will dearly miss her, and will likely not let her get too far away!” Indeed, Carraher was deeply involved in interviewing candidates for her position, for a seamless transition for social work students.

“I have greatly enjoyed my time with the School of Social Work,” said Carraher. “I placed M.S.W. distance students into agencies across Colorado and worked with B.S.W. students right here on campus. Both experiences have been fabulous and I look forward to staying in touch while I go have some adventures and also enjoy time at home.”

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Editor’s note: The new field education program coordinator for undergraduate students in the School of Social Work is Kelly Maycumber. She is looking forward to meeting students and will be hosting two Field Application Meetings in January for social work majors.