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Mary Pagan Has a Fire in Her Belly for Child Welfare Social Work

She earned both her BA and MSW while working as a social worker in Lake County

“I believe that any moment in time matters. We have an impact—negative or positive—and we leave a fingerprint.”

That is Mary Pagan’s enduring credo, one that led her ultimately to become a social worker, and now supervisor, in child welfare—the field she seemed destined for. “Working with and for children and families, that is my favorite,” she says, adding, “Child welfare by nature is challenging. You better have a fire in your belly for this work, or you’ll never last here.”

Mary has always had a fire in her belly to help other people, although the road to social work wasn’t always clear. When her 5-year-old son was in a Santa Clara county hospital, she never left his bedside. Another patient who caught her eye wasn’t as fortunate. She recalls a baby girl burned with bleach by her family. “They dropped her off in the ER and never returned. I felt so bad for her; I got permission to have her hang out with us.

“It was then I realized that I could not save every starfish, but I could have an impact, one at a time,” says Mary.

When she entered college for the first time, Mary’s goal was to become a nurse. “I believed that social work would be too hard because I would want to take every child home,” she says.

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But she put her nursing goal on hold—even though she soon would have been eligible to apply to a nursing program—when she and her husband and their three children relocated to Lake County from San Jose. Like a fish out of water, she continued to live in that rural area when they separated and found herself working odd jobs while parenting three children. 

But Mary’s fortunes were about to change. When applying for cash aid, a social worker happened to notice her schooling and told her she qualified to be a CPS social worker. “I could not believe that I did, but I did,” Mary says incredulously, “so I applied.” Soon after, she was hired.  For Mary, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead her to what she believes she was born to do—help other people.

Pathway Offers Opportunity, Support
Mary intended to go back to school once she’d finished raising her now-teenage children. By then, she’d been a child welfare social worker for a decade in Lake County Child Welfare Services in a range of positions, including working in the Family Reunification/Maintenance Unit, Emergency Response Unit, and Poster Permanency Unit, and developing and running an Independent Living Program.

“I knew I wanted to return to school; I wanted to be educated and feel confident in myself,” she says.The prospect of doing that at the time seemed dim, however, given her situation.

But, again, things were about to change for Mary. It was fall 2009, she remembers, when a Chico State faculty member, Vincent Ornelas, called the Lake County CWS Program Manager to inform her that the school had missed Lake County in its rural county outreach about its BSW Pathway Distance Learning program. “She told a few of us about the opportunity and said we needed to fax this man our transcripts. I remembering going home on break to get them; I was excited and scared.”

Mary was accepted—one of only three in Chico State’s inaugural Pathway cohort. “We were pioneers!” she says with pride.

RELATED: Read the FAQs about the Pathway Program (Distance Education)

“I do not believe I would have made it through my undergrad work without the Pathway staff,” she says. “Just about the time I was to start my completion work at the local JC, my 40-year-old husband [with whom she had reunited] had a heart attack. I was scared and had not been in school for over a decade. Mr. Ornelas calmed me down and talked me off of the ledge.”

There were a few of these events with her significant other, whom she remarried in 2010—”so now he is my ex-husband/husband,” she notes with a smile. “He had about two more very scary health-related incidents. One was so bad that I really almost dropped out in 2012 while at Chico. Pathway staff was always there to comfort, encourage, and guide me.”

Title IV-E Prepares a Leader
Mary earned her BA in 2014—the first in her self-described blue-collar family to graduate from college, she proudly notes. But she didn’t stop there. She immediately enrolled in the MSW program at Humboldt State University. “I decided to keep going right away so I would not lose motivation,” she explains. Initially not a Title IV-E student through some miscommunication, she was eventually awarded the Title IV-E stipend. If not for that, says Mary, “I would not have gone back to school. Title IV-E afforded me the opportunity to grow as a person and to grow as a social worker. I am very fortunate that I was educated at Chico and Humboldt—both schools that embrace social work, and yet with two very different curriculum.” She received her MSW this year.

RELATED: Read the FAQs about the Title IV-E Stipend Program

“Having a degree was the only way for me to move into supervision; my degrees prepared me for that leadership role,” she says. Today she is supervisor of the Family Reunification/Family Maintenance Unit, a position she’s held since 2015.

Additionally, Mary is the ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act] Liaison, similar to the position she held in her internship at Chico State. “I am deeply moved by the historically trauma of the Native American people,” she says. “I never knew the seriousness of the trauma until HSU.

RELATED: View CalSWEC's ICWA Resources

“I hold ICWA close, and I seek to educate those around me about why we need ICWA, the truth. I love the Indian community in Lake County. I respect them, and I hope the same is true of me. I hope we have built a bridge like no other in Lake County, and I hope they trust me to always represent ICWA well. I don’t think that liaison is an official title, but that is what many Tribal representatives see me as.”

Says Mary, “My lens is forever changed.”

Higher Education Advocate
“There is not one thing easy about what I did,” says Mary, reflecting on her pursuit of higher education in social work. “My husband tells me if it was easy, everyone would have a degree. This propelled me often to keep swimming.

“I encourage higher education. My youngest daughter was going into 9th grade when I began this journey. She graduated high school in 2014, the year I graduated Chico. She went straight into JC and will be a sophomore at HSU in 2017. She watched me. She wanted higher education; that makes me proud. It’s never too late for education; I will continue to learn everyday that I am alive.”