Helping Others and Helping Herself

There is one question that many college students have to face at some point. What will they do after they graduate? For some students, the answer is easy. They choose a major and find out that they love it. But for other students, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes they find what they want to do just when they think they won’t.

This is what happened to Kim-Anne Perkins. Perkins is a professor of social work at UMPI. While growing up in Blue Hill, Maine, she never thought about a career in social work. In the early ’70s, Perkins was a student at Simmons College in Boston. She wanted to become a physical therapist. But then she failed physics. Twice.

Perkins had no Plan B. But she found inspiration where she least expected. Perkins had a cousin who was a patient at a children’s hospital in Boston. She visited him often. Being with her family made Perkins realize something. She was passionate about helping people deal with health crises.

At Simmons, Perkins found out about the OPEN program. It stood for Opportunity for Educational Networking. She studied an area known as “thanatology.” The word means “the study of death and dying.”

“Essentially, I was allowed to create my own major,” Perkins says. “I discovered that death was a natural part of life and it didn’t bother me or faze me.”

During college, Perkins worked at a crisis information line. In 1977, she graduated from Simmons College. She wanted to work at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. But her bachelor’s degree didn’t give her enough training. She ended up working at Bangor Mental Health Institute. She worked as a mental health worker for three years. Her patients were people with long-term mental illness.

“I got great work experience right out of college,” Perkins says. “It gave me a much better understanding of mental illness. It helped me shape my own definition of how I could best help people and how to be non-judgmental.”

Perkins enjoyed her job. But she realized that she needed more social work training. So she enrolled in a graduate program at Eastern Washington University. In 1983, Perkins earned her master’s degree. She moved to Presque Isle. She wanted to come home and serve the type of small Maine communities that she grew up in.

Back home, Perkins helped create a hospice center in Fort Fairfield. That center became Hospice of Aroostook. Later, she became the director of an impatient psychiatric unit in Fort Fairfield. She also got involved with a grant program. It provided services for Alzheimer’s patients.

“I had many different interests in social work,” Perkins says. “But serving the elderly at home and serving people with dementia is what I love.”

In 1990, Perkins got a call that changed her life. UMPI wanted to start a Bachelor of Social Work program. They were hiring instructors to help build the program. Perkins didn’t think she was qualified for the job. She had never taught social work. For almost two years, Perkins recommended her colleagues for the job. But then UMPI called again in 1991. They invited her to come to UMPI for an interview. UMPI hired her that same year.

Perkins has been teaching social work for 25 years. Until six years ago, she also had her own social work practice. She met with nursing home and healthcare workers. There was one main reason Perkins stopped her practice. She wanted to focus more on teaching. Perkins thinks her social work experience has helped her teaching.

“I could not teach if I hadn’t worked myself. It gives me some integrity with my students,” Perkins says. “I think that I’ve been given a great opportunity to teach and tap into the natural helping skills that many of our students have.”

In her classes, Perkins teaches her students about how difficult social work can be. She likes to use real-life examples. One example Perkins uses involves a woman with three children. The woman is a single mom. She is taking classes to become a daycare provider. She thanks her social worker for helping her create a better life for her family. But there’s one problem. The woman is getting financial help from the state. The program doesn’t allow the woman to earn income. But she has been earning income for a while.

The social worker, Perkins says, has an ethical problem. She knows the women has achieved something great. But she also knows the woman should pay back the state for breaking the program’s rules. Perkins asks her students what they think. Some students say the social worker should kick the woman out of the program. Others think that would be wrong. Perkins uses this example for an important reason.

“Life isn’t black and white. A lot of us can get through the world by saying ‘This is right or this is wrong’ or ‘This is good and this is bad,’” Perkins says. “We try to help students get more comfortable with thinking in gray.”

Perkins’ colleagues have enjoyed working with her over the years. Barbara Blackstone is the chair of UMPI’s College of Professional Programs. She also is the coordinator of UMPI’s athletic training program. Blackstone says that Perkins was always willing to “show her the ropes” of teaching.

“As a social work professional, Ms. Perkins is a very articulate instructor, sharing her passion for people, the professional and first of all, her students,” Blackstone says. “She is an invaluable part of our faculty and especially to our social work program.”

Social workers, Perkins says, can work in criminal justice or mental health. Others work with people with special needs. Some find work in the child and adult welfare systems. For Perkins, all fields of social work have one common goal.

“Helping people make changes that improve their lives and the people around them,” Perkins says.

Perkins’ journey is one that has happened to many people. She did not go looking for a career in social work. Instead, social work found her. But it does not matter to Perkins how she got where she is today. What matters is that she has gotten to help people and inspire her students to do the same.