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Banbridge Woman Transforms Personal Care Experience into Social Work Passion

I think small things can have the biggest impact on people

For Melissa Irvine, social work has always been a goal. Even when she temporarily took a different path, she knew she wasn’t where she wanted to be.

The 30-year-old from Banbridge knew social work was something she admired following her personal experiences. It was from these that she decided that she wanted to be the person to help people too.

Speaking about where her passion for social work came from, Melissa said: “I had been looking after my grandparents, and I had my granny living at home with me receiving palliative care. I just remember the social worker being there and the difference that she made to those final days for my grandma and for our family.

“I know what that meant to me and so if I could get the chance to reciprocate that for someone else, it would be lovely.”

Melissa knew she wanted to help people, however, when applying for university courses through UCAS, she was put off applying for social work courses as her by teachers who advised her that it was difficult to get a place on the social work degree at the time.

Going down a different path, Melissa began studying psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, but within four months she knew that wasn’t what she wanted. She then went on to do a foundation degree in Early Childhood Studies. After taking a year out to have her son, she completed the course in 2016, but still felt like she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.

“Once I had the degree, I felt unfulfilled. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, there were no jobs for that foundation level” she explained.

After getting married, buying a house and having her second child, Melissa decided it was time to get back to her original plan.

“I applied for social work at Queen’s and started in September 2020.”

Melissa’s experience with her grandparents sparked her interest in social work and she hoped to work with older people when she qualified.

She explained: “It was an area of my personal life that I had experience in, but not professionally. I wanted to challenge myself. That’s the beauty of social work, the training is generic so you can work in any field when you qualify to find your perfect fit.

“I just thought about older people’s services and how I enjoy that work. Older people have a wealth of knowledge but they can also be vulnerable. My experience and compassion are based around that.”

After taking part in one of the few face-to-face interviews in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Melissa began her course in September at a time when the education system had to make changes to the way students were taught.

“My experience at Queen’s was not how I imagined it at all. But I embraced it, just like everyone else. We had to get on with it and figure it out. I had a baby and a child in P1 at home so I was trying to home school them while also getting my degree. It’s not what I would have wanted” said Melissa.

The main thing that Covid altered for Melissa was her first placement. After being assigned to the South Eastern Trust on the Permanent Placement team, there were a lot of infection control measures that had to be taken in order to get into the care home.

Speaking about her experience, she said: “the first placement was where I learned core skills like the social work process and reflection.

“My second was in my final year. I had to apply for special circumstances because my granny at that point was receiving palliative care. I asked to be placed within half an hour’s travel from home should I need to get to her.”

“Granny fell and broke her hip and although when she came out of hospital we arranged for her to go to a care home, she just wanted to go home. She was deteriorating so much.

I wanted to bring her home to live with me, so I phoned her social worker, Lisa.

“I knew it was a big ask, but I wanted her home for me for Christmas. It meant organising equipment and moving Granny from her house to mine, and all of that on the 23rd of December.

“Lisa got her home to me and two weeks after Christmas, she passed away. She was where she needed to be to let go.

“If it hadn’t been for Lisa and what she did for me, I wouldn’t have had that final time with her. She died surrounding people she loved and where she wanted to be,

“I now work with Lisa every day, and I want to do for other people what she what she did for me. She made me realise how valuable social work is.”

Reflecting on public awareness of social work with older people Melissa thought that more people knew about the role in children’s services. She said: “Older people services are actually carrying some of the highest levels of caseloads in the social work profession. We have an ageing population and there are more and more people needing our services.

“A lot of families don’t know about these services until they have a loved one needing to access support. We’re trying to respond and support people and families who have ever changing needs. There are a lot of demands on services and sometimes people have unrealistic expectations of what we can actually do”.

In terms of advice for others who hope to pursue a career in social work, Melissa said: “The degree gives you training but it felt like a big step up to become a qualified social worker. I think as a social worker there are things that you need to be able to bring to the table that you cannot learn, for example, your values, your empathy.

“Every area of social work is different. You need to believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, in what you’re doing and what you’re saying, then how can you expect other people to have confidence in you?

“The more you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it. And the more you invest yourself in what you’re doing, the better outcomes you’re going to achieve.”

And when it comes to how difficult the profession is, Melissa explained: “The social work degree is demanding. I think it is that way for a reason.

“You’re being assessed and tested at every juncture to ensure you are going to be able to cope with the pressures, the workload and the pace and the difficulties that you’re going to face in day-to-day practice.

It’s the little unexpected things that make it worth it: “Just seeing people happy, and being able to be that person who can sometimes help them  fulfil their wishes.

“I think sometimes small things can have really big impacts on people.”

Feeling inspired? For more information on how you can train to be a social worker in Northern Ireland check out our Interested in becoming a social worker? page.