The post: Assistant Manager, Alcohol Housing Support Team, Extern

The post holder: Rebeca Martin-Greenwood

How Rebeca became a Support Worker at Extern

Give a brief outline of your career to date.

I worked in retail from the ages of 16-21. I then began my career with Extern, when I got my final placement here as a social work student. From there, I applied for relief work and bank (shift) work. When a full-time post came up I decided to go for it and, shortly after I graduated, I got it. Anyone in social work knows it is a challenging sector, but in Extern we have a great team of people around us who support each other.

What was your favourite subject at school?

I enjoyed English Literature, as I loved the imagery and reading between the lines in texts to try and figure out what authors and poets really meant.

Did you go on to further/ higher education, if so what did you study and where?

I did my first degree in English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, but in my mid-twenties I applied for a social work degree at Ulster University, Magee. I have since gone on to do two postgraduate qualifications, one of them in Dual Diagnosis, supported by Extern, and another in Practice Teaching, which I did last year through Ulster University.

How did you get into your area of work?

I always had a real interest in the area of problematic drug and alcohol use, but I didn’t work in any field that taught me specifically about it. So when I went to Extern as a student I put this down as an area of interest, and got a placement in their homeless support team. I really enjoyed working in that area, so when this job came up I went for it. Extern offers many areas of specialism to gain experience in.

Is this what you always wanted to do?

Since I was 16 I had always wanted to do social work, after I got a placement in a school for children with learning difficulties, which I really enjoyed. There’s a warmth to the work I do. I really enjoy building working relationships with the people I support, particularly the therapeutic aspect of it. It’s an area of work I find very humbling, and in Extern we really are encouraged to see the person first in order to be able to help them address the challenges they are facing.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?

I didn’t actually need a full social work degree for the initial post I was in at Extern as a project worker, but I had already done the full three year degree anyway. I didn’t have to do the postgraduate qualifications, but it helps open more doors within social work, particularly towards management, which is something I want to progress into. I enjoy the supervision aspect of that, and promoting people’s learning as well, and in Extern I am lucky to be supported in working to expand my knowledge so we can provide the best services for people.

Are there alternative routes into the job?

You can do an HND in health and social care to increase your chances of getting into social work or you can do the full degree – two years if you have a relevant degree beforehand, or a three year degree if you don’t.

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

You need to be able to communicate with empathy. You have to be good with your time and assess risk acutely. You need to be able to connect with people and appreciate that everybody’s human and that things can happen to anyone at any time. There must never be any judgments made about people, as you could be working with someone who’s just like your own family or friends. It’s about treating people how you would like to be treated.

What does a typical day entail?

I would begin the day in the office to catch up on emails, before going out on back-to-back visits to people’s homes, usually two or three in the morning and a couple more in the afternoon. While this is a therapeutic social work role, I might also be doing things like risk assessments or facilitating doctors’ appointments. At some point in the day I try to get back to the office to respond to calls and emails.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?

I get a lot out of having meaningful relationships with people that I work with. I love seeing positive changes happen for people – that could be as small as someone drinking one less pint a day, or even eating one meal a day, taking their medication, or registering with a doctor. It can be hard to see sadness or suffering, though. Sometimes there is an element of helplessness when working with someone who is really struggling. Paperwork is always a feature of any social work role too, but in Extern it’s very person-centred and you are always there for the client.

Why is what you do important?

The people I work with often don’t engage with other services, so that’s why I go out to see them in their homes. People really benefit from having therapeutic support from someone they can trust, and who is able to deliver specialist interventions in their home. It’s a service that often doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s nice to have all those smaller interactions and support people to make small changes on a one-to-one level, because all those small things add up, and ultimately result in savings to the public purse.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?

I would advise anyone thinking of this line of work to do a placement first, because it is very specialised. It can also be a very intense and demanding job, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. You can have great working relationships with people, and you can really enjoy your work. We help change lives every day in Extern, and that is worth doing. Luckily, Extern is such a supportive employer to work for. I’ve already done two postgrads since I’ve been here, and am now in an assistant managerial role, so there are great opportunities for learning and professional development, as well as a great career path.

If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?

Teaching – I even applied to do it years ago. I also love fashion and clothing, though, so a fashion director would be my dream role!

What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?

To stick it out, be patient and keep motivated. This can be a tough job, so you always need to trust your instincts.

Describe your ideal day off.

Yoga and lunch with friends, then some shopping and home to get ready for dinner in the evening. I also love going to gigs, so seeing a band I really like in Dublin and staying over would be nice.

And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?

To really read the job description. You need to have a clear understanding of what a job entails, and, if you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask them. I’ve had calls from prospective applicants about roles we have advertised, and I’m always happy to chat those through with people.