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Social work a popular choice as a second career

Anthony Kennedy was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. He also was in the midst of a divorce and a child-custody dispute. / Irina Drazowa-Fischer / Irina Drazowa-FischerRead more

Anthony Kennedy was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. He also was in the midst of a divorce and a child-custody dispute.

So impressed was he with the mental-health social workers who treated him that Kennedy, a retired Army captain, decided to become one.

Today, he's a licensed social worker specializing in treating veterans, having completed an internship toward his master of social work degree at the same hospital in which he had been treated as a patient.

After leaving military service in 2010, with tours of Iraq gnawing at him, he says, "I went through depression, wasn't sure what I should be doing. I kind of got lost for a while.

"I stumbled upon social work through depression and PTSD from the war. So it was more of a therapeutic process for me. I realized it was the path I wanted to be on," says Kennedy, who studied at the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Hermitage, Pa.

"Because of my military service, I can offer my trauma to help vets," he says. "They know another veteran who's had some of the same things. We can just start working through the crap."

Retirement often means a second career, and a surprisingly popular later-in-life vocation is social work, particularly for men.

A 2009 study by the National Association of Social Workers found that 60 percent of respondents over age 40 said social work was a second career for them.

When compared with other respondents aged 40 and older who entered social work as a first career, second-career social workers were slightly more likely to be male.

Lou Storey went back to school for social work when he was 52 and was shocked to find "a lot of middle-aged people in my social-work classes. I was concerned I'd be the grandpa in the classroom, and I wasn't."

Storey ran a successful business designing exhibitions for museums until 2006.

"But I really was feeling a need to give back more," he says. "What I liked about social work is the human-rights and social-justice perspective, not just the medical model."

He received his master's in 2008, runs his own private practice in Red Bank, N.J., called Meaningful Therapy Center L.L.C., and also teaches as an adjunct at Monmouth University's graduate school of social work.

Now 61, Storey sees social work carrying him well into his older years.

"I hope to practice until I can't do anything." he says. "It's the kind of career you can tailor. I can practice two hours a day or three days a week."

Storey works with many retirees who "feel comfortable because I've made the transition myself."

They grapple with emotional issues that surface after leaving structured work. "I often ask, 'What is it that you feel that's missing? Is it time with animals, writing memoirs, painting or doing art again?' " he says.

"Clients tell me their dreams are impossible," Storey says. "They aren't so impossible. If it's something that they loved, some creative pursuit, they need the courage to bring it back into their lives."

Kathryn Gurland worked for years as a dancer. Then, when she was in her 30s, two family members died in quick succession. She was overwhelmed with loss.

"My dad was in the Air Force, and he committed suicide. A dear friend died of AIDS, then my older sister was diagnosed with cancer and died within six months," Gurland recalls.

What hospice social workers did for her friend and family stuck with Gurland. "Most people have a hard time with death. But these social workers knew how to help."

At 47, she returned to school for social work to focus on end-of-life care, combining terminal illnesses and psychotherapy. She graduated in 2000 and served as primary caretaker in cancer treatment for her other sister, Peggy.

"Her partner said to me, 'What do people do who don't have a medical advocate?' With my sister Peggy, I knew the system and her rights. She could fire her doctor, get a second opinion, insist on her favorite blanket."

Most people "think social workers just take babies away. But there are all kinds, like oncology social workers who work in every cancer hospital."

But why choose social work, when you'll never be rich?

"I consider social work a calling," Gurland says. "If you burn out, you can switch from work in hospitals to community outreach, policy or advocacy. You're more financially secure when you're older. It's very fulfilling."

Plus, age serves the profession, she says: "In another field, my age might work against me. With social work, my life experience is an absolute positive."

At 40, David Dunbeck left a successful career in civil engineering to earn a master's degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999. He spent 17 years at Horizon House, most recently as director of homeless services.

Why the switch?

Says Dunbeck: "Did I want to work harder and harder to make a company more profitable? Or make the world more just and alleviate pain?"

215-854-2808 @erinarvedlund