Sarah Steeley, MSW ’20

A young woman with long brown hair, brown eyes, and nose ring sits smiling on a bench surrounded by bushes and wild flowers. She is wearing blue jeans, a floral patterned v-neck shirt over a light green turtleneck and tan moccasins. She is leaning forward with her hands clasped between her knees.Since March 2022, Sarah Michelle Steeley, MSW ’20, has worked as a Social Worker at Selfhelp’s Holocaust Survivor Program in Washington Heights, providing person-centered, trauma-informed case management to approximately 40 older adult clients who are survivors of Nazi persecution. She checks in regularly in person or over the phone with her clients, who live in Washington Heights, Riverdale, or elsewhere in the Bronx. She helps them to develop and fulfill individualized care plans that meet their needs and to access benefits and entitlements so that they may live with the comfort and dignity they deserve – and which they were denied in their youth during the Holocaust.

Sarah particularly enjoys in-person visits. Because many of her clients live close to each other, or even in the same building, she usually visits two clients per day. Asked about the impact of her work, she cited a recent visit to a client whose husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor, had died a year earlier. The main purpose of Sarah’s visit was to update the woman’s emergency contact information, which she had been unable to get over the phone because the woman is hard of hearing and has a speech challenge. During the visit, Sarah said, “I was able to get her son’s contact information and then we spent 45 minutes or so together working through some of the grief she has experienced in the last couple of years, especially the loss of her husband. As we were talking, I mentioned that we want her to be able to comfortably stay in her beautiful home as long as possible. I asked ‘have you thought about ways for you to safely do that’? The woman then asked me whether Selfhelp still offers home care services, which we do.” Sarah then asked the woman a series of questions to determine how much home care she would need and be able to tolerate. 

With her client’s permission, Sarah called the woman’s son to discuss next steps in arranging her home care. He was amazed and said “I don’t know what you did but we have been trying to get her to talk about home care since my dad passed away last year.” Sarah explained, “I didn’t encourage her to talk about it, she brought it up…maybe it’s just the fact that I put it into her hands and said ‘what do you think you should do?’ I really do try to help my clients maintain their independence and their feeling of agency over their lives. That is especially important since they had so much taken away from them when they were young and they had no control.”

Prior to joining Selfhelp, Sarah spent almost two years at Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center on the Upper East Side as a social worker for long-term and short-term patients during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I did intakes and depression screenings, dementia screenings on the long-term patients, and updated the quarterly plans of care. I also planned discharges for both long and short term residents with interdisciplinary team input. My caseload was as high as 66 patients and then sometimes I was covering for other social workers so it would be higher. It was a great learning experience with a population I love. It not only taught me about how to work within the healthcare field, it taught me a lot about what I am looking for in my work and the types of supports and opportunities that I want moving forward.” 

Among the things Sarah discovered she wants from her job are greater work life balance, the opportunity to move up in the organization, and the chance to work in policy. “Working in a nursing home during the pandemic was exhausting,” she said. “I chose social work very intentionally, and I don’t want to burn out on the thing that I love. 

In her current job, Sarah is able to work from home at least three days a week. Once she has settled into her role and has proven herself, she expects to be given an opportunity to serve on committees that advocate for funding and public policy that benefit older adults. “Already,” she said, “one of the great things about this job is that I get to attend workshops connecting policy to practice. For example, I recently attended a full day forum hosted by an elder law firm on changes to New York's home care Medicaid rules and how that will impact my clients with Medicaid.” 

Sarah said that her NYU Silver education gave her a strong background in geriatrics that prepared her for success in the field. “From the moment I stepped foot in Silver, my path to gerontological studies was clear,” she said. “First, I was placed in a geriatric psychiatry ward at a local hospital, which sparked my interest in the population. This spark was nurtured over the next two years through various professors and my second year Field placement. Dr. Linda Lausell Bryant gave me the opportunity to develop lesson plans and teach on the topic of aging for both Human Behavior and the Social Environment and Diversity, Racism, Oppression, and Privilege classes at the BSW level. I then worked with the Field Learning office to obtain a Macro/Micro placement at JASA (Jewish Association for Services for the Aged), working part-time in government affairs, and part-time as a case management intern running groups and making home visits at a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community in Bushwick. My time in Dr. Ernest Gonzales’ and Dr. Stacey Gordon’s Theories and Issues in Aging course provided me the opportunity to delve into policies and theories often overlooked in other coursework.”

Sarah added that during her final semester at Silver, Dr. Gonzales encouraged her to co-write a textbook chapter with him titled “Challenges and Opportunities to Living and Working Longer in the Twenty-First Century,” which was published in Rowman and Littlefield’s Handbook on Aging and Work in 2021. “Dr. Gonzales really supported my passion for geriatrics, and now we are published. It still blows my mind when I think about it.”

As for the future, Sarah said, “I have goals for myself and ideas of what I’d like to see myself doing but one of my favorite quotes is ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ I would love to teach someday. I would love to build programs for people to age in place in other communities that deserve reparations. And I have a partner who lives in another country, so who knows where I’ll be in five years? I just want to hold my future with an open palm. I know what I’m passionate about and I trust in the serendipitous force of the universe that’s gotten me this far.”