For Elvira Monreal Rodríguez, every social work case "leaves you with something, and you take it with you in your heart". However, the cases that touch her the most are those of "the most unprotected people, usually children". For Elvira, children are a mirror for what is happening around them, and therefore a useful barometer for society at large.
So what does her work tell her about the current state of affairs in Spain? Elvira Monreal Rodríguez works in Mejorada del Campo and Velilla, a municipality of 22,948 inhabitants within the community of Madrid. It's an area that has been deeply affected by evictions and child poverty.
In her community, the economic crisis has hit families very hard. Many initially relied on subsidies, before falling back on their savings. When their savings ran out, they turned to their relatives. "Grandparents are having to use their pensions to support their children and grandchildren", explains Elvira, "which creates tensions and inter-generational strife".
In this environment, social workers encounter a wide range of problems associated with poor housing, low incomes, and unemployment, as well as the more perennial issues of drug dependency and educational difficulties.
"People need to want to change"
Social workers often get the blame when things go wrong. However, Elvira Monreal Rodríguez is clear that they don't have a magic wand. "All we can do is accompany people. They need to want to change, and what we do is support them and provide them with the resources necessary to achieve this".
Adopting this supporting role, and accepting that you can't completely control the behaviour of those you help, takes great humility. It is precisely this aspect of her work, however, that Elvira enjoys the most. Social work is a vocation, she tells us: "you have to be passionate about contact with all sorts of people with all their difficulties, their potential, and their various circumstances".
She is, however, fundamentally optimistic about people's ability to help themselves. "People have so many abilities: they rebuild their lives with sheer determination and innate positivity".
The human touch
Human contact is the bread and butter of any social worker. Elvira Monreal Rodríguez not only has to address the demands people make of her but also to assess the circumstances that underlie them. For this, she says, social workers have to "communicate, listen, empathise, and seek out hidden potential".
She spends about two days of her working week in contact with people, and for the remaining time, she handles the administrative side of her job: coordination with other professionals, referrals, requests for information, demands for additional resource, and case meetings.
"We offer primary care," she says simply: "all citizens can access our services, regardless of their legal status". It is this universality that motivates her. "I am seeking a better quality of life for people, and helping them to access and enforce their rights".
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