Ana Bonilla-Galdamez, a school social worker known for her work in turning around students who are gang members, has become the only school social worker from Virginia in 50 years to win the prestigious National Social Worker of the Year Award.
Bonilla-Galdamez is a social worker at Charles Barrett Elementary School and a former social worker and gang counseling specialist at the Minnie Howard Campus of T.C. Williams High School. She will receive her award at a reception in Washington, D.C., in April.
“This is an honor, but it’s really an award for all the kids I’ve worked with. They gave me permission to enter their lives and be part of who they are. I’m very passionate about what I do, but I’m also aware it’s a great responsibility,” Bonilla-Galdamez said.
Bonilla-Galdamez, who came from El Salvador as a non-English-speaking immigrant at the age of 12 years old, set up a program called Latino Youth for Excellence (LYFE) at Minnie Howard to help create healthier relationships and living environments for her students.
Much of her success comes from her ability to relate to students and build trusting relationships. She herself was an at-risk teenager when she first emigrated to the United States, and was enticed to join rebellious groups and skip school in an effort to find a sense of belonging.
Through LYFE, Bonilla-Galdamez was able to provide her students the sense of belonging and self-worth that at-risk teens often seek through gang membership. If she had a student who was in trouble for graffiti, she would turn their creativity toward designing T-shirts and posters. The students in LYFE took ownership of their members’ success, and worked together to ensure members attended class on time and made positive decisions.
“I focused on their talents. I treated them like kids who want to fit in, which is what teenagers are. The key is that everybody has a place and everybody belongs,” said Bonilla-Galdamez.
Although her program was initially started through a small group of predominately Latino students, other students soon wanted to join. They would go on team building activities, play soccer against the teachers or go to the Capitol, which was often the first time many of the students ever had an opportunity to dress up.
Bonilla-Galdamez has seen some of her students, such as Tammy Cavazos, who had practically dropped out of school and was homeless when she met Bonilla, end up at colleges such as the University of Virginia. Others, who were not lucky enough to find intervention, are serving a life sentence in jail for crimes she will not even name.
“I was struggling and not planning on going back to school when I met Ana in ninth grade. I had no idea that college was a way out of all this. She is the reason I am still in school. She never left me alone,” said Cavazos.
After 13 years at Minnie Howard, Bonilla-Galdamez wondered how her students’ lives would have been different had interventions and supports been put in place earlier. This is when she decided to transfer from the high school level to the elementary level.
Bonilla-Galdamez’s arrival at Charles Barrett coincided with a dramatic population shift at the school. Many families requiring support and services had recently moved into new housing in the school zone, and felt disjointed from their previous school community. She worked with school administrators and staff to ensure that these families and students were immediately welcomed, supported and valued.
Seeing a need for positive role models for students at Barrett, she set up a mentoring partnership between the school and the Alexandria Police Department. Initially, this program had just one teacher and a handful of police officers and connected eight students with teacher or police officer mentors. Four years later, her program has 52 mentees participating along with 30 teachers, members of the Sheriff’s department, police officers and members of the U.S. Marshall’s office. This program has also improved the relationship between the school and these law enforcement groups.
“What Ms. Bonilla-Galdamez does is outside the typical box,” said Charles Barrett Principal Seth Kennard. “She is able to balance all the responsibilities of a school social worker with truly innovative programs to bring our community into our school and better support our students. What she has done is something radical. She has created a different reputation for school social workers.”
Bonilla-Galdamez’s parents decided to leave war-torn El Salvador when she was 12 years old because of the dangers of the armed conflict. Students were being killed or taken away from their families to join the military or the guerrilla. Fighting between government troops and guerrillas left a path of death for children to witness.
“I remember there were times that we were under our beds during the armed conflict and we heard the shells dropping on our roof and the gunfire. I remember my mother leaving to work carrying a white flag so she was not attacked. When I came to the U.S., I did not speak any English and I had left all my possessions behind. I had not seen my father in several years as he had come to the U.S. ahead of us. It was difficult to acclimate to the new environment.
“Today, kids look to me and they refer each other to me because I can empathize with their struggles. I dealt with some of the things that they are dealing with and was never told in high school that college was an option. I try to make sure they know about college and other opportunities for their future. I want them to know that they have a choice to dream and make those dreams a reality like I did,” Bonilla-Galdamez said.
Bonilla-Galdamez went back to El Salvador eight years ago to volunteer at a hospital working with pregnant teens. She feels it is important to give back to her native country.
She will be inviting her husband, two sons, parents and Charles Barrett co-workers to the National Association of Social Workers award ceremony in D.C. in April. She is now grateful for the sacrifices her parents made to bring her and her siblings to the United States.
The criteria for winning the award include an ability to demonstrate service beyond the job requirement and an ability to take risks to achieve results.
“This is the first time that a school social worker has been recognized and received such a prestigious award. We are immensely proud that Ana Bonilla-Galdamez is part of the Alexandria City Public Schools social work team. The service she provides to students and families is invaluable,” said Arnecia Moody, ACPS Lead School Social Worker.
Bonilla-Galdamez will also be honored by the Alexandria City School Board at a meeting this spring.
“I couldn’t think of a person that is more deserving of this award. Working with Ana Bonilla-Galdamez is a privilege. She is understanding, flexible and compassionate. Her ability to empathize with her colleagues and students is uncanny. Ana’s insight and experience is invaluable. She is able to connect with families and staff alike and is a treasured asset to our community,” said Charles Barrett first-grade teacher and colleague Erin Waldeck.