SyraQs: Syracuse resident rescued from a drug addict now counsels Loretto employees


Editor’s note: Central New York is full of vibrant, intriguing, thoughtful, bright people committed to making our region a better place. Every Monday, we’ll publish a fast-paced question-and-answer session with one of them. Here is today’s interview, edited and condensed for clarity.

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As a social services caseworker for Onondaga County, Eleanor Williams saw at work the life that she, as a child, barely escaped. After her mother became addicted to drugs, Williams’ aunt and uncle raised her in their home in the Southern Tier. Today, she is pursuing a master’s degree at Syracuse University and is working as an employee coach at Loretto, helping workers with difficult life circumstances. Williams, 42, spoke recently with syracuse.com about the emotional toll of her years as a caseworker, the food pantry in her Loretto office, and why she’s easy to talk to.

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Your parents had substance abuse issues. Tell me what that was like and how you overcame that.

I was born in Brooklyn at the very beginning of the crack epidemic. My mother became addicted to drugs after she had me. My aunt and uncle, who lived in Upstate New York at the time, didn’t want me to grow up in that environment, so they took me into their home. I was educated in the Horseheads school district, and when I graduated from high school, I came to Syracuse to go to SU.

When I was partway through SU, my uncle ended up getting pancreatic cancer. He was the most amazing father that you could ever ask for. And pancreatic cancer, if you’re familiar with it, takes you out quickly. I was able to see him in the hospital and talk to him before he passed away, but it was very, very, very hard for me.

How did you end up at SU?

I applied to only three schools: SUNY Albany, NYU, and Syracuse. I got accepted to all three. My uncle wanted no part of me being in New York City. Syracuse gave me the better financial aid package.

I worked in retail management for several years, which was hard because I then became a parent, and working retail hours when you’re a single parent is not easy. When I was pregnant with my second child, I got a letter from the Department of Social Services for (a job as) a social service examiner. I started in December 2010.

What was that job like?

I think that was the beginning of me discovering what my passion was, and that was also the beginning of me seeing really how fortunate I had been. I really, for the first time, saw the poverty here in Syracuse. I saw a lot of young women that looked like me but didn’t have the same opportunities that I had. I noticed that I had a way with people; people who wouldn’t talk to the other workers would be honest with me.

What is it about you or your background that they gravitated to you?

When someone looks like you, I think it does make a difference. I could relate to certain things, because yes, I did grow up in the suburbs, I did have a good life, but I still visited with my family who didn’t have such a good life.

Eventually, you become a caseworker. Can you tell me about what you learned or saw in that job?

That was another glimpse into the pervasive poverty that we have here. In child support, they were coming to me, for me to interview them. But when you’re going into someone’s home, and you see that they have nothing, they don’t have food, they don’t have beds, it’s really humbling.

When you have to go in and see how difficult life is for some people, how do you deal with that on a daily basis?

It was really hard. I’ll never forget, I met with this one family with little kids, and the home just wasn’t up to standards. I remember going to my car and just crying, like, Why do they have to live this way? It’s not fair. They’re already being set up for failure. It was also hard, like when I would remove kids from the hospital. I can’t imagine having a baby, and then having someone come in and take your baby literally out of your arms.

That had to be extraordinarily difficult.

It was. I would say I kind of got used to it, but there are certain things that you never get used to, and the cases that would bother me the most were when it was kids who were the same age as my kids. I would really, really struggle with that.

At some point that you saw an ad for Loretto. What was the job?

The job was called employee coach. Loretto realized the demographics of the area that we live in, who we employ, the pervasive poverty in our area, and substance abuse, domestic violence — all of these things that people are bringing into the workplace with them. My role is basically case management for employees. If an employee comes in with anything that could be a barrier to employment, that’s what Eleanor is here for.

People have problems with transportation. Maybe they need scrubs, maybe they need shoes. I have talked to employees who have had deaths in their family, employees who are going through domestic violence. I’m actually working with pretty much the same clientele that I was working with at the county.

Other than listening to what they had to say, what are you able to do for people?

We are trying to develop more concrete transportation and childcare options. I’ll connect them with different people who might be more affordable as it comes to transportation. I have a food pantry in my office.

Do you have any thoughts about what the city or the state can do to make to make life better for the people you’re talking about?

I think education is important. If you don’t have basic skills, it’s going to be very hard for you. Some of them don’t know how to do a resume or fill out a job application. We’ve got people who want to get cars but they don’t have a driver’s license.

Someone contacted me the other day and said, “I’m about to get evicted in a couple of weeks.” This is somebody that comes to work every single day. Outside of work they have all these issues.

It’s what teachers see in classrooms — kids who come to school every day who have very difficult home lives.

Right. They may not have had the love and nurturing and tough love and all of that at home. And so, you know, if (an employee) can come talk to me and feel like they’re being heard, that’s important to me. I may not be able to fix anything in their life. It makes me feel good that they can trust me. I feel like I’ve been given one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had to be here and to make a difference.

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Do you know of a fascinating and engaging community member whose work and life we should highlight in SyraQs? If so, let us know. You can email me at gcoin@syracuse.com or add their name and contact information to this Google form.

We hope to hear from you, and we hope you’ll tune in to SyraQs every Monday. Catch up on our previous SyraQs interviews:

SyraQs: SU climate professor researches the past to help understand the future

SyraQs: A young engineer from Lebanon gives back to his homeland and Syracuse

SyraQs: Once the class clown, former WCNY producer shoots video for honor flights

SyraQs: South Side activist hands out food, organizes Kwanzaa celebration

SyraQs: Groundbreaking SU trustee chair was son of a groundbreaking SU professor

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SyraQs: Syracuse resident rescued from a drug addict now counsels Loretto employees

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