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From Retail to Social Work: Tandragee Mum Embarks on Journey to Change Lives

“I just want to make a difference to anyone who is struggling”

From a young age Cathy Blevins knew she wanted to become a social worker. In her teenage years she wanted to give back to the community.

However, life got in the way, and Cathy missed out on her opportunity to pursue the career she dreamed of as an 18-year-old.

Now 34, the support worker who currently works for disability charity IncredABLE, she’s finally pursuing her dream.

The Tandragee mother of one 13-year-old is currently studying Social Work at Belfast Metropolitan College*. Although in her younger years she had encountered people who felt they had a negative experience with social workers she is excited about helping to dispel some of the myths around the work carried out by social workers in Northern Ireland.

Cathy, who currently helps families affected by disability, says having the ability to help people is one of the “best feelings” and something she is looking forward to bringing into her career as a social worker.

She said: “The reason I always had an interest in it was because I loved the thought of helping people and making changes for the better.

“When I told people I was applying for social work, they expressed their concerns because of what they thought the profession was about, but I want to prove to them that they’re wrong, I want to show them that social workers are there to help people.”

Despite wanting to enrol in social care when she was 18, Cathy’s life took a different path. She explained that school didn’t work out the way she wanted, she began working in retail and eventually became a mum to her son at 21.

Cathy then chose to put her career ambitions on hold as she wanted to watch her son grow up and be a stay at home mum.

But as her son started to get older Cathy realised it was time to do something for her. The feeling she should be helping people never left her, and three years ago she made the decision to return to her calling.

She explained: “I spent two years doing an access course and then I applied for university. I genuinely didn’t know if I would get in, but then I got the email to say I had been offered a place.

“I was initially in two minds about it because I’m getting married next year and knew this would mean I would have to come out of full-time employment and so I started worrying about how I could afford everything, but I knew I hadn’t just worked the last two years for nothing.”

Despite not having studied for many years, Cathy was able to return to education with few struggles.

“Everyone has been really supportive,” she said, adding: “The biggest challenge is that I live in Tandragee, so to avoid traffic I’m leaving the house before seven in the morning.

“I’ve had a lot of mum guilt that’s led me to question myself. But I know that it’s something that I really want to do and I know it will be worth it.”

While she completes her course, Cathy is also working as a Support Worker and Project Worker for people with learning disabilities and autism. Through this she participates in a number of different programmes.

She said: “We support and empower people by taking them out, we want to give them support while having their own freedom.”

The hands-on experience from her job has helped her in many different elements of the course, Cathy explained: “I have a better insight. In my job, we have reports to write and there’s been people on the course who have no idea how to do all of that yet.”

Describing the course itself, Cathy said it’s important for people to understand what they’re getting into: “There is a huge workload. I completely understand why we have so much to do. You can’t leave things to the last minute.

“The lecturers and tutors have been so brilliant across all my modules and really do make it easier for you.”

In hindsight, by deciding not to continue on her journey into social work when she was 18, it gave Cathy time to grow up and find herself.

She said: “If I had gotten onto the course when I was 18 I definitely would not have dealt the same with it. I wouldn’t have the same maturity. At 18 my heart wouldn’t have been in it the way it is now.

“I had my son when I was 21 and that made me grow up and I’m 34 now and I’ve been in situations where it’s given me a better understanding.”

For Cathy the journey may have taken a while but the satisfaction that she feels when she helps people is the reason that she keeps on going. Although her preference would be mental health, she knows that wherever she ends up, it’ll be for the right reasons.

“I knew whenever I was going into social work that I wanted to be involved with the healthcare side of things. It’s not just the supporting individuals, but we’re also supporting their families,” she said.

“That’s when I started to fall in love with it. When I saw that I was making a difference to not only one person’s life, but to their entire families. It’s just the most rewarding thing.”

Working in social work also comes with a lot of tough moments, something which Cathy is aware of and is ready to tackle.

She said: “There’s obviously some emotionally draining times where you feel that you’re not making progress with someone. A lot of people just tell you to not get attached, but we’re human beings. It does break my heart sometimes.”

Looking at her own life in comparison to some of the things that she experiences in her job makes Cathy feel a huge sense of gratitude and helps get her through rough times.

She added: “I have a 13-year old son and he is completely healthy, so you definitely do realise that people take life for granted sometimes. But, when you’re able to help somebody, or you see progression that someone is making, it just makes you feel so good for them and for yourself.”

Cathy not only is now on her way to becoming fully qualified, but she also already knows what area of social work she would love to work on.

She said, “At the moment, my passion is working with people with mental health issues, probably due to personal reasons. I know that that field is going to be challenging but I just really want to make a difference.

“People don’t understand mental health and there’s a real misunderstanding, so I just want to make a difference to anybody who is struggling.”

When looking to the future Cathy tries to just make it through each stage instead of looking to the end, but one thing she knows for sure is that it will be worth it in the end.

“I know it was the right decision to apply for this course, and I know it will be absolutely worth it”.

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.

*This three year honours degree programme is offered in collaboration with Ulster University. Years one and two are studied at Belfast Met, whilst year three studies are undertaken at Ulster University’s Magee Campus and in practice learning sites