LINCOLN – Lincoln resident Pam Riley’s dedication to making a difference in children’s lives has earned her the 6th annual Irena B. Smith Award for Excellence in Clinical Social Work and Counseling at Bradley Hospital.
The award is given each year to a clinical social worker or counselor at the hospital who best exemplifies excellence in clinical social work and counseling.
Riley said it’s an honor – and a surprise – to be recognized with the award.
Smith was a beloved social worker at Bradley, Riley said, and sole survivor in her family of the Holocaust.
“From the stories I hear, she had a passion for what she did,” Riley said. “Social workers need grit. You have to be strong to go places that people may not want to go clinically, sometimes.”
Riley has spent about eight years at Bradley, with the last three in the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, the hospital’s residential services program.
She told The Breeze she’s always been interested in human services, majoring in psychology as an undergraduate before earning her master’s degree in social work.
“My focus was really a desire to work with kids and families,” she said, starting her career doing home-based work and specializing in special needs children.
As an intern in Albany, N.Y., Riley had the opportunity to work directly with special needs children. She recalls the teachers telling her about the children they worked with and where they were developmentally.
“She warned me to be cautious with one little boy, saying he bites and gets really rigid. When the kids came bombing through the door coming in from recess, he ran toward me and hugged me.”
From that moment, Riley said she felt a calling to serve children and their families. She worked with him one on one with his communication board, and little by little tried to get him to step outside of his comfort zone.
“I was so touched by him and the other little guys in that program,” she said.
In her role as clinical social work supervisor of Bradley’s CADD team, Riley said she’s able to work with a diverse population of people.
The work reflects her personality and passion, she said, giving her the special opportunity to work with children and their families.
The children and adolescents in the program present with chronic behavior disorders of varying degrees, in addition to a developmental disability. Many times, the residents experience high levels of aggression or self-injurious behaviors.
“We really help them adapt by implementing structure and routine,” Riley said. “It’s very hard for some of these families to place their children and to come to the conclusion that they can’t provide the level of services and care their loved one requires. There’s a grieving process that goes on.”
Riley said she tries to help families be as involved in their child’s life as possible.
That was made more difficult during the peak of the pandemic, when the residents couldn’t visit home.
“It was a very scary time for the families who already live with a high level of fear because their child is not with them,” she said, adding that she and other staffers became familiar with Zoom. Riley worked to adapt to the ever-changing obstacles brought on by the pandemic, filling in wherever needed and helping to educate other staff members in new areas.
Through it all, her goal remained unchanged.
“I hear this over and over. People want to know that their child is being cared for. They want a connection. This is their child’s home now, and I want them to feel welcome and involved,” she said.