Bonner Day: Social services there to help families in need

Bonner Day

The valley is slowly pulling itself out of the 2008 recession, but not without the help of county social services departments.

One prime statistic, valley unemployment, has gone down. In Shenandoah County, for example, the official rate went from 8.5 percent in 2009 to 5 percent in 2014. In Warren County, unemployment went from 7.8 percent in 2009 to 5.5 percent in 2014, the latest county figures available.

Unemployment is the most obvious sign that a family is in trouble. It is for such strains on the community that the valley has offices of social services, the people who administer welfare benefits. During this recession there was an increase in rent assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, energy assistance and other benefits.

The social services departments’ search for clients varies. For the person in need, the process may begin by filling out an application, available at the county offices. A case worker is assigned and the applicant is assisted according to need. In 2015, Warren County helped 9,780 clients and Shenandoah assisted 10,671.

Particularly in a recession, a family may only be a couple of paychecks from needing assistance. In Virginia, these welfare costs are shared by the state, the federal government and the counties. For Warren County, in 2015, some $29.5 million was spent by the federal government, $21.9 million by the state and $1.9 million by the county. For Shenandoah County, the federal government spent $30.9 million, the state $23.6 million and the county $2.4 million.

If you visit the new social services building in Front Royal, you will be impressed by the friendly staff, headed by Director Beth Reavis. Director for five years, she previously served five years as social services director in Franklin City. The building, with big windows and skylights, is a converted school.

“I wanted the building to be uplifting and bright,” Reavis said. “So many social services buildings look like prisons.”

Warren County’s Social Services building was renovated for $5.7 million. Opened in July, the building also houses other county offices.

But when you talk with Reavis, you realize she is less interested in the building than the people she helps. “Each day my goal is to make somebody feel better.”

When dealing with joblessness, child abuse and other social problems, a positive outlook is as important as a pickup is to a farmer. As Reavis puts it: “Social work is not for everybody.”

She said she had one new employee quit before lunch. But she pointed out that two welfare clients, doing volunteer work, proved themselves so competent they were hired as staff. Her Mary Poppins spirit is contagious. I caught myself whistling “a little bit of sugar” when I left her office.

The Shenandoah Social Services Department is also in a recently renovated building, at a cost of $4.2 million.  On Main Street, it shares space with the county health department and a regional mental health office. If the entrance is a little forbidding, staff members explain that the office keeps personal information that requires strict security measures.

The director, Carla Taylor, has served in Shenandoah County since 2012. She was previously director of Winchester’s city social services for seven years.

Cases in Shenandoah County are similar to the rest of the state, though with a disproportionate number of aged residents. The county also has a handful of refugees from Cuba. Cash assistance in 2016 amounted to $10,356, all paid by the federal government.

“I love my job,” Taylor said. “Every day is different.” But she said it takes the collective will of the community for her department to succeed.

As for the valley, the recession may be on its last legs, but if local case loads are an indicator, a struggling economy is still with us.

Bonner Day raises cattle and roses in the Valley. Email: bonner5@shentel.net.