Last Friday evening, the Department of Children and Families honored Adolescent Social Work visionary Ralph Zona for his 36 years of service to the State of Connecticut and his work with over 600 youth from the city of New Haven. The Department has made many well publicized mistakes over the years, but Ralph’s life of dedication and sacrifice for our teens and their resulting success is an example of the work that is done far more often but rarely appreciated.  Ralph has always been outspoken about the flaws and failures of the bureaucratic system, but never let that system interfere with his tireless advocacy for his kids. For that he deserves to be recognized.

Born and raised in the Greater New Haven area, Ralph began his social work career in 1975 at what was then the Department of Children and Youth Services in New Haven. He was promptly assigned a now unthinkable 122 cases of foster care children over the age of 12 who were placed in foster homes and group homes across the state. Ralph recognized that many of the adolescent youth in foster care were not being adequately prepared for their transition into independent living and in 1978 decided to create the first Life Skills classes for the teens out of the New Haven office. The program evolved into Community Based Life Skills, a statewide service that has become a cornerstone of the DCF Independent Living program and the DCF Adolescent Policy. A policy that Ralph actually had a large hand in creating and that was originally drafted with adolescent youth present. This was to ensure that the real experts, the kids themselves, were involved in the process and able to provide a clue to those of us who only work in the world they live in.

Ralph noted that much of his success can be contributed to thinking outside of the box or at times in his words “outside of the planet.” Ralph’s good friend and Adolescent Services co-conspirator Bill Pinto noted that Ralph was “never afraid to send 7 billion letters to anyone who would open them” to seek support for their unconventional ideas. Among those who did consistently respond to Ralph’s letters over the years to serve the orphans of our society were UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun and NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath. Ralph’s “crazy’ ideas manifested in his long time coordination of the ConnectiKids Golf Tournament which raises money for kids in foster care. He created Big Brother and Big Sister programs which matched young men and women in congregate care settings to mentors from the Yale University football team and Albertus Magnus College. In the early 1980s, Ralph began organizing Holiday parties for foster children and helped arrange Statewide Youth Conferences into the 1990s.

But above all else, Ralph’s legacy will be the Department’s emphasis on post secondary education for our youth. While other adolescent workers were just trying to survive along with their kids, Ralph was a trailblazer that preached the importance of higher education to his teens as a ticket to a better life and the end of generational poverty. Ralph ran statewide college fairs and advocated that his kids dream big and work hard. With Ralph’s help, kids on his case load graduated from Yale, Harvard, the Berkeley School of Music and nearly every public university in the state of Connecticut.

The highlight of Ralph’s retirement celebration was the return of one of his former foster care youth, Crystal Astrachan, who spoke about Ralph’s substantial influence in her life and offered some words of advice to the rest of the social workers in the room. Crystal is herself a 2004 graduate of Yale University and currently a Manager of Business Development at Connecticut-based TicketNetwork, one of the fastest growing companies in the nation. As Crystal began to tell her story and of her appreciation for Ralph, her eyes welled up with tears and she could only continue with a hug of strength and support from a friend and fellow ex-DCF youth who also formerly worked with Ralph and who is now a domestic violence victim advocate.

Crystal collected herself and spoke about how she was hesitant to get to know Ralph after being let down by so many adults in the past, but that she slowly learned to trust him when it became evident that Ralph actually cared about her well-being and that his involvement in her life was more than just a job. Ralph was there to see her graduate from Yale in 2004 and as a token of her appreciation Crystal shared the secrets of Ralph’s incredible success as a social worker, which serve as a lesson for us all.

I’d like to thank Crystal for sharing the text of her speech with me and for her permission to use her words here. Here’s what she believes set Ralph apart:

Ralph was there for us. He was not interested in using us to advance his career or get recognition for his work.  He genuinely cared about our development and success. Our happiness and achievements were his profits.  I’ve learned that this quality in people is rare.

Ralph was happy. Because Ralph was fulfilled in the act of his work, he did not expect to receive any personal benefits from his clients. This was comforting, since I had grown up seeing adults use their children for their own benefits and also had been a victim to this type of treatment myself.

Ralph was professional while still being human. He did not lean on us for emotional support or treat us like his friends or colleagues. He let me see that he was a real person with a life outside of work. He always told me about his wife and children and what they were up to.  His openness made me feel as if he were just a regular person – not just a DCF employee.

Ralph works with integrity. He is honest, reliable, consistent, and never made a promise that he did not keep.  Through Ralph’s actions, I learned that he was someone I could trust.

My dreams were always within reach with Ralph. During high school, I realized that I had an adventurous side and sought opportunities to combine travel with education and service. Ralph never made me feel that I was asking for too much. It would have been really easy to tell me that he could not get me the funding or approval to go to Mexico to study Spanish or to go to Honduras to volunteer. But Ralph knew that my passions for international travel, service, and education were important to me and he supported my goals.

Ralph did not sweat the small stuff. As an adolescent, I did some stupid stuff, but he kept perspective and knew that hiccups here and there are normal parts of development.

Ralph fostered independence. He was able to see that I made good decisions for myself and was there to guide, rather than tell me exactly what I was supposed to do.

Crystal continued by saying, “I believe that every foster care child has the potential to make their life better while in (care). Like all other children, they need support, guidance, and encouragement.  I consulted with my friends who lived with me (in foster care) and others who were in foster care. We are all in our late 20s and early 30s today. We got in touch with our adolescent selves, and, in our teenage voices, we wanted to tell you what we need from our social workers.” She then presented a list of seven needs of youth in foster care which could easily serve as the defacto “Manual for Working with Teens.” Again I express my gratitude to Crystal for sharing, here’s what the former foster youth collectively advised:

1.       Give to us without expecting anything in return, we may be too hurt and angry to express appreciation when you are helping us, but trust that one day we will remember that we had someone who gave to us this way.

2.       Help us feel that your job as a social worker is more than just a job for you.  Call us just to say hello.  Return our calls so that we don’t feel forgotten.  Be happy to see us. Be proud of us.  Make us laugh.   

3.       Never tell us how to feel about our situations today or how we should deal with the pain from our past. Let us be sad sometimes. Understand when we withdraw or act out.

4.       Give us room to mess up and make mistakes, for our mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and grow. Teach us how to forgive by forgiving us.

5.       Don’t make us feel as if we are a burden.  Show us that our presence is a gift.  Teach us that we, like all other children, deserve to be cared about and treated well. Before we (came into foster care), we may have learned through the actions, lack of action, or words of other adults that we are not worthy of attention, love, and caring – and that our needs should never be made a priority. Show us that this is not true through your actions, which will help us to make good decisions about the people we choose to have in our lives.

6.       Challenge us.  Ask us these questions: “What are your dreams? What is your purpose? What are your talents? How can you utilize your talents to help others?” Let us know that you are there to help us reach our goals and we will feel empowered.

 7.       Don’t just help us with our “self-esteem”. Help us with our “other-esteem,” which is how we feel about and relate to others. Help us understand how we are needed in our communities and our worlds to make a difference and how purposeful our gifts can be. This will help us to heal and fulfill our desires for interconnectedness and community that we long for. You, social workers, have this gift. Share it with us.

After Crystal finished her speech, it was now us social workers with the tears welling up in our eyes. I hope her words will be taken to heart and wanted to share them here to inspire all of us in social services, in teaching, in childcare, and those of us who are parents as we try to encourage the kids in our lives to find success, happiness and community.

Ralph addressed us as well after Crystal’s speech and humbly attempted to summarize his career in social work. He noted that in his nearly four decades of experience, it seemed 40 percent of kids in care will not find success in the system not matter how good their social worker is, the trauma they have experienced is simply too great. He also reported that it seems 40 percent of the kids will find success no matter how bad their social workers attempt to screw them up or get in their way, they are just too resilient. Which leaves 20 percent on the fence that we have a chance to make a difference with. Ralph said he believes that if over half of this 20 percent can also find success, then a social worker can be confident they did well and hoped his overall success rate was over 50 percent. If Ralph was in need of any validation of a job well done, he only had to look out on the sea of appreciative faces including family, co-workers and former youth, all of us inspired to follow in his footsteps. Thank you Ralph and best wishes as you begin a new Chapter.

Comments
  1. Randy Fisher says:

    Good stuff Maynard!
    I really liked that education was expressed. Goals and the utilization of one’s talents are needed in the community. Self Esteem to me is still #1 because i see it missing on every level of employment. But it most definitely needs to be nurtured into “other esteem”, feeling about and relating to others. God’s plan is built on “other esteem”. We need to love others but we first have to love ourselves.Being a foster kid has a built in need to feel loved and be guided toward self appreciation and esteem but unless it is steered toward other appreciation and community you haven’t helped fully integrate that kid into independance in order to break the cycle.

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