Social worker finds niche in Rochester Library

March 10, 2022 / 5 mins read

Social worker Allison Carpenter sees her work as a natural extension of what was already being done by Rochester Public Library staff.

“They are all about connecting people to information and resources,” she said of library staff. “They have kind of gotten some on-the-job training for themselves in connecting people to social services, but they recognized there was a service gap.

“There was a growing need that they weren’t quite able to fill themselves.”

Carpenter joined the library team in January through a new partnership between the library and Family Service Rochester. She works for the nonprofit service agency, but is funded by a grant initiated by the library.

The Rochester native and Winona State University grad works 25 to 30 hours a week from the library's second-floor wellness corner in an effort to connect a variety of library visitors to a broad range of county-based and community-based programs.

With March recognized as Social Work Month, we took some time to talk with Carpenter about her career and the work she’s been doing in recent months. Here’s some of what she had to say:

What drew you to a career as a social worker?

I was raised by a single mom, and she was a home-health nurse. Sometimes when she didn’t necessarily have anywhere to put me or it was summer vacation, she would bring me on her visits. Getting to see how important she was in people’s lives … it seemed so warm and happy.

I thought it was an incredible thing to be that light in people’s lives. Without her, what would their lives look like?

So, why aren’t you a home-health nurse?

Nursing is not my deal. Math and science, blood, gross. Social work was an obvious parallel to that.

Also, being raised by a single parent, if we didn’t have family, I don’t know where we would have been. My parents separated when I was 3, and when my mom and I left, we were homeless for three months. We stayed with my aunt and uncle and my cousins.

In my mind, it was the best three months there could have been, but looking back, it was far from the best three months for my mom, but at least we had them.

I grew up thinking, ‘What if we didn’t have family?’ And, you know what, there are people out there who don’t have family, so social work spoke to me. I wanted to be that person for people who didn’t have any other support.

What drew you to the library position?

I worked for another nonprofit in town, and I worked with families and children, and that has always been a passion for me, but something was speaking louder and louder, telling me I was ready for a change.

Like so many people during the pandemic, we’ve had time to slow down, get contemplative and listen to that inner voice. I thought I would be brave and listen to that. …

This position was open, which sounded really incredible. …

I thought it would be a really good fit, with who I would be serving, where I would be working and who I would be working for.

Who are you serving in your new role?

It’s not exclusively with those experiencing homelessness, but that’s a big focus, because a lot of people who come to the library needing social services happen to be experiencing homeless. Not everybody who comes to me is homeless, but a lot are.

How do people connect with you?

Some are walk-ins directed to me by the reference librarians. There actually has been quite a lot of press with this new role, so I’ve noticed an uptick of people coming in already knowing of me. ..

Part of my role too is to walk around the library periodically and just make connections with people. … As people are coming to me in the first place, it’s easy to come by and say, ‘How are you doing today?’ or whatever. The purpose of that is reminding them that I’m here.”

Do you think it’s easier to access help here?

I think so. I’ve had a couple experiences recently where people have reached out for help connecting to social services, filling out applications and things. (Few people) see themselves doing that in their life. … I think it feels much less stigmatized to come to a social worker at the public library than Family Service Rochester or the county.

How many people are you able to connect with during a typical day?

It really varies. Some days are busier than others, of course, but I’d say on a slow day I might not see anybody and I get to catch up on things and walk around and make connections. … On a busier day, with shifts that are five to seven hours long, I might help three or four people.

What are the most common requests?

Connection to housing has been a big one, which is tough because it’s a resource that is sorely lacking in our community.

Food has been somewhat of a need, but mental health would probably be second place. Connections with therapists or mental health workers, but that might not necessarily be the request of people, but it’s quite apparent that it’s a complicating factor in their story.

That seems to make things complicated.

Because of the stigma, which is unfortunate, you can’t really come out and say ‘do you need a mental health worker?’ It’s about building that relationship with people first, so then you can ask.

It seems so wrong in our culture. If it seemed apparent that someone had a physical ailment, you could ask, but mental health is a little bit different. That’s unfortunate, but that is what our culture is right now.

What if someone is opposed to the offer of help?

What I might see as something that should be a goal doesn’t matter. In social work, it’s all about what the person sees as their goal. I might think (their objective) is an interesting one to pick out of what I’m observing, but that’s what we’ll work on.

That in itself is rapport building, so when the biggie comes up, you can really work on that.

What do you see as the future potential for the position?

I see it growing. Just in the short time that I’ve been here, my plate has gotten more and more full, so I think it could potentially be more than what a (part-time social worker) can really adequately do. I see it growing in terms of the need.

I have wondered for the past several years, since (Destination Medical Center) has been underway, what it will look like for the most vulnerable in our community. Who is going to think about the needs, anticipate the needs and build the infrastructure to support those needs?

As DMC comes about and grows and becomes all it supposed to be, I just wonder how big the gap is going to be, because the more people we bring to our community, the more burden it puts on the existing social service structure, and we know that social services are not often adequately funded, even though Olmsted County is incredible with how well it supports the most vulnerable.

[photo credit: Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin]

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