Faithful social worker wins national award

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When I enter Ana Bonilla-Galdamez's office for our scheduled interview, she is on the phone discussing the deportation hearing for one of her students at Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria.

As she continues her conversation, I scan the toys, books and student drawings that line the shelves and walls. One sign reads "Parents make the difference" in Spanish; another outlines rules, from sharing to listening. Extra food, shoes and educational pamphlets fill cabinets and cubbies.

This is not just an administrative space but a refuge.

"Sorry," Bonilla-Galdamez said sheepishly. "I had to take that."

And she is all ears until dismissal time, when parents and students line up at her door. She listens to their concerns one by one, asking questions rather than issuing instructions.

This is why the National Association of Social Workers, the largest professional membership group in the field, recently named Bonilla-Galdamez, a cradle Catholic, Social Worker of the Year. It is one of the four awards the association gives out each year, recognizing three of its 150,000 members with the Lifetime Achievement Award, the Public Elected Official of the Year Award or the Public Citizen of the Year Award.

"Ana strikes a balance between (enforcing policy) and taking a parental approach," said Seth Kennard, principal at Charles Barrett. "That's what makes her approach a holistic one."

Kennard explained that more than one-third of Charles Barrett's student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, which is not high enough for the school to be classified as Title I, or high poverty. Because of this, Charles Barrett does not receive federally mandated resources allotted to Title I schools, despite a relatively high level of need.

"So we make do with less," said Kennard, but "Ana is good at getting outside entities to help the students."

Bonilla-Galdamez attributes her success to a work ethic deeply rooted in faith.

"I need to fill my spirituality cup because spirituality is part of being balanced," she said, explaining that balance, not perfection, is what allows her to assist students and families.

Bonilla-Galdamez, who now lives in Lorton, came to Hyattsville, Md., with her family at age 12 to escape the civil war in El Salvador.

"We left everything," she said. "What we had were things people gave to us," she said.

When they first arrived, Bonilla-Galdamez and her family relied heavily on the generosity of a nun at el Centro Católico, the Spanish-language Catholic Center run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, for basic necessities.

"When we ate, we ate what Hermana Maya gave us," she said. "I also faced the harsh reality of my parents working day and night, and, in a sense, I became my little sister's mother."

Unable to speak English, Bonilla-Galdamez found a community at St. Camillus Church, a Franciscan-run multicultural parish in Silver Spring, where she started attending Spanish-language youth group with her older brother.

"In San Salvador, I grew up a traditional Catholic, going to daily Mass and weekly confession," she said, "But you didn't live your faith."

That soon changed because of youth group, which she said distracted her from the bullying she endured at school because of her accent and above-average height.

"I would go to bed crying and praying, asking why?" she said. "But I knew that on Sundays, I was going to be happy, accepted. The church was my lifeline."

She assisted with Youth Mass, organized fundraisers and performed community service. When the church's confirmation teacher "dropped off," Bonilla-Galdamez, then 14, said she taught the rest of the class.

Bonilla-Galdamez began spending so much time at the church and with her youth group that her mother started to complain about her not spending enough time at home.

"Youth group gave me the socialization that teens crave," she said. "It gave me a sense of identity."

Outside of youth group, Bonilla-Galdamez contended with more than just cultural barriers and her classmates' torment. At 14, she started her first job cleaning toilets. Before graduating from high school, she also worked as a cashier at a fast food restaurant and as a clerk at a money order office.

She said that other youth group members had it hard, too. Some of them had immigrated to the U.S. by themselves. Every year, the youth group put on a big Christmas party, in part to stifle homesickness.

Still, Bonilla-Galdamez admits that, even with the support of youth group, it was hard to be in a new place. During her first year of high school, she began to act out - "nothing major, no spiraling down" - and got in trouble with a few fights at school. She said that today when students fight, she sees herself in them, trying to fit in or vent their frustrations over problems at home. When she experienced her own bout of rebellion, it was her youth group pastor who got her back on track. He started asking her to come up with topics for retreats and skits.

"Sometimes (young Catholics) spit out the words and don't think about what (they're saying)," Bonilla-Galdamez said. "But ever since that youth group 'Padre Nuestro' ('Our Father') skit, I know exactly what I'm saying."

At her pastor's prompting, she went on to study at St. Bonaventure University in New York, the first Franciscan university established in the United States, after completing a year of community college.

"With faith, you learn to give, have hope, believe and always pray," she said. "St. Bonaventure was not very diverse (back then). I would go to the chapel by myself, pray in Spanish and cry."

The campus did not offer Spanish Mass and, because Bonilla-Galdamez never learned how to pray in English, she felt uncomfortable in English Mass. She wanted desperately to worship in her native language.

"Sometimes ideas pop into my head and I just go with them," she said. "I was working in the university language department at the time, so I asked the Spanish teacher if she would offer extra credit to her students if they went to Spanish Mass. She said yes. So I went to the friary and they let me celebrate the first campus Mass in Spanish. I read and sang in Spanish, and Spanish-speaking kids and Spanish students actually came."

Because of her, Spanish Mass became an annual tradition.

After graduating in 1993, Bonilla-Galdamez went on to earn her master's degree in social work from Catholic University in Washington. Since then, she has spent nearly 20 years in Alexandria public schools.

She started her career at T.C. Williams High School's Minnie Howard campus, where she said teens would ask her questions about faith, one-on-one or in an after-school program she offered.

"Intellectually, we (school staff members) teach them to add and read," she said. "Physically, we offer P.E. and meals. Emotionally, we have counseling. But what do we offer them spiritually?"

Bonilla-Galdamez said that, in a public school like Charles Barrett, she cannot discuss faith matters unless students or parents initiate the conversation. When they do, it affects how she talks to them.

"When a child's parent dies and the child starts asking about heaven, then I will talk about heaven," she said. "Many parents will cry about their kids not making the right choices. If they talk about praying for them, then that opens the door."

But regardless of a student's faith background, Bonilla-Galdamez helps - "always to the maximum, with love, service and compassion, straight from the heart," said Molly Zametkin, her mentee and a graduate social work student at Catholic University.

"She is the eternal flame of social work," said Zametkin. "She helps people with respect for their human dignity and autonomy. For her, it's not about doing things for someone; it's about being by their side and giving them the right resources."

Zametkin cited a few examples of Bonilla-Galdamez's efforts, such as a program for Latino parents, a community student mentoring program and a self-esteem focus group for fourth- and fifth-grade girls.

Bonilla-Galdamez, who splits her time between St. Camillus Church and Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria, where one of her sons recently started CCD, was honored April 30 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

"This is my ministry," she said. "I'm no different than any other immigrant. My mother cleaned houses. My father was a chauffeur. I was an at-risk kid. But God put me on this path."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015