A long and winding road
UGA alumna Shelly Hutchinson empowers others through social service
Starting the Social Empowerment Center, a full-service mental health and social service agency dedicated to helping some of Georgia’s most underserved residents, has opened many doors in Shelly Hutchinson’s (MSW ’00) life.
In 2014, the Social Empowerment Center was named the fastest-growing Bulldog-owned business during the UGA Alumni Association’s annual Bulldog 100 Celebration. The icing on top of the cake: Hutchinson was the first female, minority and School of Social Work graduate to receive this distinction.
The road from criminal justice major to successful business owner was a winding one for Hutchinson. As a UGA alumna, she reflects on the adversities and triumphs that led her to where she is today, a career in which she assists families as they navigate child and family welfare services.
Hutchinson spent her undergraduate years at Louisiana State University hoping to become a lawyer. Halfway through college, though, the criminal justice program closed and Hutchinson was forced to reexamine her interests. She elected to focus on social work and sociology.
After graduation, Hutchinson was offered a position with Fulton County’s Department of Family and Children Services in metro Atlanta. She worked in a variety of roles at DFCS, including as an after-hours child protective services investigator.
“The problem with working at DFCS,” Hutchinson said, “is that I emotionally took every child home with me. Did I make the right decision? Should I have removed the child? Domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness made every case I had a ticking time bomb. That’s a lot to take home, and it takes a toll on the psyche.”
Eventually, Hutchinson decided to pursue a graduate degree in social work. UGA’s Master of Social Work program rose to the top of Hutchinson’s list after a DFCS recruitment event.
At the event, she learned about the Title IV-E Child Welfare Education Program, which paid for tuition, fees, books and mileage for individuals interested in a career in public child welfare in Georgia or for current Georgia DFCS staff members who wished to pursue additional training. The program—a partnership between 10 Georgia schools of social work and DFCS—prepared its graduates for competent practice in child protection, family services, foster care, adoption and home development programs.
“Dr. Jackson-White cared about my successes as if I were her own daughter. She gave me kudos when I earned it, but always let me know when I could’ve done better.”
Hutchinson began her graduate school journey as a part-time student on the UGA Gwinnett campus in 1997. While in school, Hutchinson continued to work with DFCS in various capacities to complete the two required practicums for her program. As a student, she worked closely with Geraldine Jackson-White, who quickly became her favorite professor and a close adviser.
“Dr. Jackson-White cared about my successes as if I were her own daughter,” Hutchinson said. “She gave me kudos when I earned it, but always let me know when I could’ve done better.”
In 2002, Hutchinson and her husband, Edward (MED ’09), founded the Social Empowerment Center. Starting her own business provided Hutchinson with an improved work-life balance and gave her the chance to do the same kind of work as DFCS without being responsible for as many life-and-death decisions.
Hutchinson has remained involved with the School of Social Work since graduating in 2000. She worked closely with Dean Maurice Daniels on the Donald L. Hollowell: Foot Soldier for Equal Justice project and is now serving as an adjunct professor. In addition to her work with the school, Hutchinson is a member of the UGA Alumni Association Board of Directors.
When asked why it’s important for her to stay engaged with the university, Hutchinson said “serving on the board makes me feel like I have some small part in making sure the UGA tradition of excellence continues.”
Hutchinson said that social work is a tough field, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.
She gives this as an example: For the last two years, the Social Empowerment Center has provided services to siblings in foster care. Recently, Hutchinson attended the siblings’ court hearing and was able to share in their joy as they were officially adopted into a secure and loving family. It’s moments like these, she said, that ensure the Social Empowerment Center will leave a lasting mark on the metro Atlanta area and its families.
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- Jamie E. Lewis, UGA Alumni Association