By Casandra Nguyen, ’15
Ana Bonilla-Galdamez of Lorton, Va., a social worker in Alexandria public schools, has been named the 2014 National Social Worker of the Year.
The 1993 St. Bonaventure University alumna has made several contributions in the Alexandria school district that have led her to success. By pushing economic and social barriers, she’s strengthening the bridge between students, parents, schools and communities.
“I am grateful and honored to receive this award,” said Bonilla-Galdamez. “I received this award in honor of the many families and young people that allow me into their lives. It has granted the opportunity to shine the spotlight on school social work.”
Bonilla-Galdamez will be honored during an awards ceremony that will be held from 6-8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Every day, Bonilla-Galdamez works with students who face challenges similar to those of her past. During a Christmas vacation from their El Salvador home, her parents told her they were visiting the United States and dropping off her brother due to the dangers of the civil war. “Vacation” actually meant “immigration,” and when they arrived her parents revealed to her that they were in the U.S. to stay.
While she was internalizing the anger from the move, she often ran into trouble. Bonilla-Galdamez found herself getting into a few fights and skipping classes. Now as a social worker, she has seen immigrant students running into similar types of trouble.
Through her innovations as a school social worker in the Alexandria City Public School System in Virginia, the Latino Youth for Excellence (LYFE) program was developed to help young people in challenging situations develop their talents in a positive environment. This has led to participants in her program having lower drop-out rates and fewer incidents of gang-related behavior and teen pregnancies.
“I’ve had students who often became involved in fights to release their anger or as a way to fit in,” said Bonilla-Galdamez. “Instead of having them fight in the hallways and in the streets, we found boxing programs for them. There have been students who have engaged in graffiti and vandalizing; we have found art programs for them. These aren’t bad kids; they need the guidance they deserve.”
BRIDGING THE GAP between students’ lives at school and at home is important to Bonilla-Galdamez. Another program that she developed is “Los Padres Hacen La Diferencia (Parents Make the Difference).” The leadership program is mainly for Latino parents; it offers support and education to build family involvement and a sense of community.
“Kids need cheerleaders,” said Bonilla-Galdamez. “They need someone standing on the sidelines rooting for them, whether they’re on the winning team or the losing team. I either want to be their cheerleader or the advocate that teaches people how to be one.
Bonilla-Galdamez has had the opportunity to take a group of students to explore the St. Bonaventure community and to share her story of where she found her voice. By showing these students that she once started in their shoes and worked her way through college, it gives a sense of hope.
“I developed an international hour in the school’s radio station once a week,” said Bonilla-Galdamez. “I organized the first Mass in Spanish on campus; I volunteered at the soup kitchen and at the campus ministry.”
When returning to St. Bonaventure, there was one particular person who contributed directly to her success: Mary Piccioli helped her pay the application fees to move on to graduate school.
“She had faith in me, and for that I would forever be thankful,” said Bonilla-Galdamez. “I came back to campus to pay her back, and she laughed saying that graduating with my master’s degree was payment enough. Generosity, advocacy, faith, courage to represent my culture and respect for others are some of the values I took from St. Bonaventure.”
Bonilla-Galdamez plans to continue to identify the needs of her students and to look for opportunities to develop programs that can open doors for them.
“Keep moving forward by opening new doors and doing new things and finding new opportunities,” said Bonilla-Galdamez. “Do not forget to always have hope.”
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