Melissa Pietrkiewicz, a 2012 graduate of UB’s MSW program, grew up in Chautauqua County. Pietrkiewicz decided to join Americorps at the age of 18 and, after 10 months of service in California, she was accepted to SUNY Fredonia. It did not take long for Pietrkiewicz to change her major from English education to social work. Now working as a school social worker for Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus County BOCES Alternative Education Program and the founder of Partners in Kind of Chautauqua County, Pietrkiewicz hasn’t looked back. Indeed, she reveals that after a harrowing experience in Americorps, she “needed to make sure someone could advocate for students. I needed to make sure that they had someone in their corner at all times and I knew that social work was going to be the realm I needed to do that from.”
In her early career, Pietrkiewicz ran the female dormitory at Cassadaga Job Corps Academy and later worked as a child therapist for Chautauqua County Mental Hygiene. Pietrkiewicz says that obtaining clinical experience “opened a lot of doors and taught me about the type of social work I wanted to be a part of.” It was this experience that helped lead her to found Partners in Kind in an effort to bridge the gaps for people who need help, but do not qualify financially. Inspired by a desire to pay it forward, Pietrkiewicz views the organization as more of a movement than a community group. She explains, “I went through years of infertility and part of my thank you to the universe was that when Noah was 1 year old, on the anniversary of my first positive pregnancy test, we did community service and on that second anniversary I actually started Partners in Kind.” Since then, the organization has engaged in a variety of community projects ranging from providing feminine hygiene products to women experiencing homelessness to filling book bags with comfort items for children who have been removed from their home.
Pietrkiewicz has discovered a “beautiful dynamic between Partners in Kind and (her) role as a school social worker” because she is able to identify children and families affiliated with the school who the organization can help. She is grateful that UB equipped her with the skills to bring back to her home town and goes on to say “Buffalo, for being a big city, there is such a homey feel to it and me being a Chautauqua county girl I wanted to stay local. I knew that it would make sense for me to learn at UB and have everything that the big city school has to offer and be able to take that back here to Chautauqua County.” She remarks on the flexibility and support of the faculty in the program who helped her succeed despite a busy schedule of working, commuting and raising a young child.
Like many of UB’s MSW students, one of Pietrkiewicz’s biggest takeaways from the program is a trauma-Informed lens. She elaborates, “Making sure people have access to the help they need, that they eat breakfast in the morning, that they feel like they can trust who they are talking to, that their personal and emotional safety is important to the service provider…that really goes a long way for me.” Her school is currently undergoing efforts to make it a more trauma-informed environment going as far as establishing itself as a food bank site and setting up infrastructure for students to be able to shower and wash their clothes. Refusing to look at the children she works with as victims, Pietrkiewicz empowers them to “be survivors and create opportunities for them to share and hopefully inspire some of our younger kids who are going through some of the same things that they are.”
Pietrkiewicz takes a practical approach to social work and admits that it can be difficult at times. Nevertheless, she says to future social workers, “you have a light to shine, otherwise you wouldn’t have been drawn to social work and you have to shine it bright.”