True Grit

Award-Winning School Social Worker Wouldn’t Give Up On Dream Job

School social worker Ginny Grit, center, clowns around with fifth-graders Zachary Ueland, left, and Aiden Sullivan

If anyone is deserving of their name, it’s Ginny Grit.

The Forest Hills district social worker who focuses on students with special needs and splits her time between three elementary buildings has bypassed roadblocks every step of the way to be in the job at all.

Apart from that, or maybe because of it, those in her field are taking notice.

Grit recently was named School Social Worker of the Year by the Michigan Association of School Social Workers, Region C, a 12-county area that spans the middle western portion of the state.

“I’m sure (the award) would mean a lot to anybody,” she said. “What’s cool about it, for me, is that I had to fight so hard to get here.”

Grit graduated college with a job already accepted, but soon after she began, thethen brand-new mom’s hours were reduced to half-time. She eventually found work in another district, and the more than hour-long commute each way was tough on both newborn and mother, but she loved the work, she said.

Then, another layoff. Another job, another layoff. Another job, another layoff. Five districts in three counties in just five years.

Grit considered going back to school to get a nursing degree, “but something kept telling me no,” she said. “I remember looking at my daughter and saying ‘We’re going to be OK. Your mom is going to be the most hard-working, positive person you have ever met.'”

Indeed, plenty would say those things — and have — about Grit, a school social worker assigned to Meadow Brook and Knapp Forest elementary schools, as well as Ada Christian School.

Grit has had “a tremendous impact not only on our son Zachary’s life, but on our entire family as well,” wrote Steve and Kelly Ueland in a letter recommending her for the state honor. Grit has worked with the fifth-grader, who has autism, since just prior to kindergarten.

Zachary agrees. Miss Grit is not only a friend, he said, she’s “a really good one. She’s nice and she’s really smart.”

School social worker Ginny Grit, center, clowns around with fifth-graders Zachary Ueland, left, and Aiden Sullivan
School social worker Ginny Grit, center, clowns around with fifth-graders Zachary Ueland, left, and Aiden Sullivan

‘It’s about being kind to everyone’

Dan Ekonen, director of unified sports initiatives for Special Olympics Michigan, said “Of the 120 Project UNIFY schools in the state of Michigan, you would be hard-pressed to find a coordinator who shows as much passion to create an inclusive school environment for all students.”

Here are just a few examples: In 2013 Grit secured a grant from Special Olympics Michigan for Meadow Brook to start Project Unify, a voluntary education and sports-based program that promotes acceptance, respect and leadership for students of all abilities while creating an inclusive school environment.

She and her colleagues also developed the district’s LINKS program, which pairs general education students with special education students.

She created another group, called Circle of Friends, for other children with special needs to work on specific tasks with a general education peer such as planning a party, holding a conversation or making new friends.

On a recent late morning Grit had an office full of boys, who were busily playing “conversation dice” on the floor. The real goal: to hone social skills and the art of the chat.

Third-grader Mason Wurm rolled and got this question: How many people are in your family?

“Five,” he said. Coincidentally, the three other boys in the room each also have five in their families. Boom: something in common. And though the conversation veers from chicken nuggets to Shakespeare to the bravest person each knows, the boys were also learning and teaching one another about paying attention, staying focused and participating in discussions.

“I tell (general education) students before they sign up, they need to have amazing hearts,” Grit said. “I make sure they understand that it’s about being kind to everyone and embracing differences.”

And, she said, it’s about learning perseverance, a quality with which she is all too familiar. A quality she seems to be passing onto others.

“That is, in my opinion, the No. 1 skill anyone can have,” she said. “People who never give up can beat even those with more intelligence and better resources. I’m really grateful for all the adversity in my life. I think it made me a better social worker and a better person.”

CONNECT

SNN story about Project Unify

Meadow Brook Elementary’s Project Unify Instagram

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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