Social worker reflects on career

Published 9:31 am Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jill Weikum spent 33 1/2 years in the middle: Families mostly, particularly those with problems.

Always there were children involved.

She found them foster parents and when they were abandoned, adoptive parents.

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When she finished her career as a licensed social worker for the Mower County Department of Human Services, she had worked with the elderly, too.

Her co-workers gave her a deluxe lawn chair so she can relax in her backyard in northwest Austin and not flinch when the telephone rings that it will be a summons to rush to the scene of yet another incident of human ugliness and misbehavior.

Weikum need worry no more about men and women, boys and girls and babies.

“People do say ‘thank you’ sometimes,” Weikum said. “It’s unusual, but it has happened that somebody appreciated what I tried to do for them.”

Weikum is a native of Austin. She never left her hometown except to attend Winona State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Both parents are deceased: Paul, her father, worked at Hormel Foods Corp., and Kay, her mother, worked at a northwest neighborhood grocery store.

She is the second-oldest child in a family of four boys and Weikum.

Two of her brothers, John and Joe, live in Austin.

Don Holten, then DHS personnel director and now-retired, hired Weikum to work at DHS in October 1975.

When she graduated college and returned home, she got a job as the receptionist at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.

Then, she learned about a clerical job at the DHS and she applied. She didn’t get that job, but was hired as a senior case aide to manage the Chore Program for seniors and day care licensing.

She also processed social worker bills. “I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” she said.

The workplace environment offered little privacy for clients or DHS staff.

“I had a desk by a window that slid open so you could talk to other people,” she said of her introduction to the DHS. “We were on the top floor of the courthouse, and there were desks in the hallway and everywhere we could find room.

“We were bumper-to-bumper back then,” Weikum said. “The office equipment was bought at auction and we all fought over desks and garbage cans. Whichever looked the best we wanted that for our own.”

In a back room accessed by a half-door was Bruce Henricks, then a DHS accountant, who later became the department’s director before retiring early this year.

Holten took Weikum under his wing and became a mentor to the new hiree.

After five years, Weikum became a social worker in 1980.

“There were nine of us handling all the cases at that time,” she said. “Whenever the government changed its focus, the pendulum swings: Families, then children, then the educable disabled and then the elderly and back again.”

So crowded were social workers, when co-worker Charlene Blowers took a medical leave of absence to have a baby and returned, “There was no room for me in the office, and I had a desk in the hall.”

In those days, social workers responded to all police and sheriff reports of family violence. Officers drove them to the scenes.

When Weikum had to driver herself to the location of the investigation, things were different. “I knew my way around Austin, but I didn’t know how to get around in the county. They would write down directions to a place out in the country and I would head out there, hoping to find it as quickly as possible,” she said.

When Mower County funded the Chore Program for seniors and a home health care service for seniors and the disabled, that relieved some of Weikum’s duties.

In the spring of 2005, Weikum’s responsibilities were changed again … sort of: She started working with the elderly.

By then, she had earned DHS merit badges for day care licensing, foster and adoptive parents and myriad other responsibilities in the fast-paced department.

Change was a constant in the social worker’s life.

“I did adoptions, too,” she said, changing the subject from the elderly for a moment. “There were babies who had to be adopted from their biological parents’ home and I found those parents.”

Foster parents, too, were recruited.

Always there was a lot of travel involved, and it was a challenge for the “city girl.”

“It took me a couple of years until I figured out my own way where the foster homes were,” she said. “I had never been to Taopi. I had never been to LeRoy.”

In discussing her career, most often Weikum dwells on children, and she reserves her biggest compliments for foster parents. “They were the greatest,” she said. “They had a knack for fostering children like I’ve never seen elsewhere.”

Shocks to the senses of normalcy came and went.

In the very first six months of her social work, Weikum had an experience that stayed with her the rest of the year. “I had a case where two babies were abandoned,” she said. “That was a tragedy. I was in a state of shock.

“All I really had was my little, normal upbringing and even if you go off to college to study a profession and learn about dysfunctional families, it was beyond me how that could happen in life.”

A 90-minute interview comes to an end and Weikum has not talked about herself. She is a well-known Democrat and Mower County DFL party activist.

She has also dealt with serious health issues.

Nothing said about either subject.

Instead, she focused on the DHS, co-workers and the clients — albeit anonymously, of course — she tried to help.

Helping is what she does in life.

In her spare time, she is an active member of First United Methodist and a hard-working volunteer for the Mower County Humane Society.

Weikum is the person behind the outpouring of generosity each Christmas, when First UMC purchases gifts for needy children.

Now, she has her deluxe lawn chair to enjoy and memories of being in the middle.

“I loved working with my co-workers at Human Services,” she said.

And somewhere in Mower County and beyond, there are families, elderly, babies, children and teens, who can say they loved working out their problems with Weikum.