Alumna of the Year 1997: Margie Mejia-Caraballo

Social workers as a group have one of the largest burn-out rates of any profession, and it might have happened to Margie Mejia-Caraballo, too, had it not been for several signs of affirmation and encouragement.

In 1995, Mejia-Caraballo, a social worker in the Rock Island-Davenport area on the Illinois- Iowa border, was wondering if perhaps she had done her share of good deeds and if it wasn’t coming time to switch jobs. Then the Child Welfare League of America named her “social worker of the year” for the Midwest.

She and the four other regional winners traveled to Washington, D.C., for a banquet and received their awards from First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mejia-Caraballo even got to talk with Mrs. Clinton for a few minutes, and though she was a little disappointed that the President could not attend (as he had planned to), Mejia-Caraballo says it was inspiring to meet a first lady who has adopted the rais­ing of children as a pet issue.

She decided she couldn’t quit then.

The next year, Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference honored her with its “peace mug” award, an accolade reserved for those whose work brings about peace in their communities.

Couldn’t quit then, either.

“It’s often easy to think that I’ve already done what I need to do,” Mejia-Caraballo says. “It’s not easy when everyone is noticing.” Everyone is noticing again. This year, Mejia- Caraballo— and, if things work out, her nine siblings— will all come to Harrisonburg in October when she receives Eastern Mennonite University’s “alum of the year” award. Her hus­band Joshua, a nurse, as well as 10-year-old daughter Abigail and 5-year-old son Joshua will also make the trip.

The steady stream of awards has been hard-earned. As a child welfare worker at the private, non-profit Bethany for Children and Families in Rock Island, 111., she must make dif­ficult decisions regarding when children will stay in their homes, be removed from their homes or be returned to their homes. Mejia-Caraballo works her eight or nine hours a day, but is on call should emergencies arise— as they are apt to. She sees most of her clients in their homes, and she says that 90 percent of the families are dealing with drug or alcohol abuse.

“Most of the time when you go to college and study social work, you just think that you’ll sit in a nice office and have the people come to you,” she says. She recalls making an unannounced visit to check on a child who had recently been returned to his home. The child’s mother had just finished doing cocaine, and when Mejia-Caraballo arrived, the mother was high and enraged. It took calm words and patience to get the child out of the third-story apartment without setting off the mother.

That case was typical of Mejia-Caraballo’s caseload in that it was a court referral. Bethany for Children handles many cases referred by courts on both the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Mississippi River, and many times, Mejia- Caraballo must testify at hearings which determine nothing less than a family’s future.

“You’ve got people’s lives right there in the palm of your hand,” she says. “How you assess and report is life and death for those people.” She has been fortunate so far: never has one of the children she decided to leave in a home or return to the home been killed. The statistic speaks not only to her skills, but to the realities of a profession where the hoped-for results are even less than what is taken for granted by the majority of society.

The demands on Mejia-Caraballo’s energies are increased by the fact that she is the only bilingual social worker in the area. And not only does she understand the Spanish language, she understands the Hispanic culture, espe­cially in the Quad Cities (Rock Island, Davenport, Moline and Betendorf). Though she was born in Mexico, her parents were American citizens who chose to raise their brood in the United States, where there were more options available for education and employment. W hen Mejia-Caraballo was six, she moved to Rock Island. Now, she supplements the typically low social worker’s salary with money she earns translating documents and interpreting in courtrooms.

She is also active in a local political committee dedicated to protecting the rights of immigrant workers. The Quad Cities have seen several raids on factories by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that resulted in charges, deportations and polarized relationships. As the lone Mennonite on a mostly Catholic committee, she has been able to articulate to new and open ears the positions of peace and justice that her faith has taught her for years.

Mejia-Caraballo is president of the church council and the congregational Mennonite Mutual Aid advocate at Templo Alabanza Menonita in Moline— the church she has attended almost all her life. W hen she went off to college, first to Hesston in Kansas and later to EMU, she was stunned to find that her classmates knew very few Hispanic Mennonites; she’d been one all her life. “I thought Mejia was a Mennonite name,” she says. “I thought everybody knew that.”

Even more than the social work and formal Spanish class­es she took at EMU, the overall impact of a Christian educa­tion did much to prepare her for her chosen life, she says. Her clients have told her that there is something different about the way she handles her cases, and that something, according to Mejia-Caraballo, is her Christian commitment.

“The burn-out comes when you don’t have another source of support,” she says. “If you have something more, you are able to maintain because of that. It’s easier when you don’t have a Christian education to look for something more financially lucrative, to come and go based on money. There is no focus on giving more of yourself.”

So she prays a lot. She says that she can’t make decisions on her own, just off the top of her head. Her Christianity, she says, holds her to a higher standard, yet at the same time sup­ports her work. It’s been 10 years, and for the third year in a row, she finds that she can’t quit now.

Published August 1997.