Sarah Smith

Sarah's Journey

Sarah Smith sitting on a bench in front of a boat dockSarah grew up in the Northern Illinois Township of Warren. The youngest of three children, Sarah reports that her family has always been close, supportive and caring to each other, characteristics that can also be seen in their career paths: her father, worked as a carpenter for Habitat for Humanity; her mother a Special Education Instructor in 7th grade; her brother a professional Photographer; and her sister, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

As a child, Sarah was very active. Most days were spent riding her bicycle and playing with friends in her neighborhood. Sarah also excelled in classes.

However, at the age of 8, things began to change with Sarah. Activities she once enjoyed gave her little pleasure. Sarah wouldn't leave her room and did very little. She became despondent and very depressed. Her family noticed the change immediately and sought help for her.

Soon after, Sarah was admitted to an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit in order to address the drastic change in her mental health. Sarah was subsequently diagnosed with depression, an anxiety disorder, specific learning disabilities, ADHD and other emotional issues.

After being discharged from the hospital, Sarah began seeing an outpatient therapist to discuss her ongoing mental health condition. In addition, Sarah and both of her parents worked with the school counselor and developed an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP would identify supports that Sarah could receive to accommodate limitations directly related to her mental health and learning disabilities.

As time went on, Sarah's mood began to improve. She was slowly taken off medication. She began to take enjoyment in different activities such as soft-ball and soccer and participated in competitive cheerleading competitions. She began reconnecting with friends.

As the end of high school grew near, Sarah's mother, Erin, was provided information about an agency that could help individuals with disabilities, like Sarah, achieve employment through the provision of individualized supportive services. The agency? The Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation (IDHS-DRS).

Since Sarah had already started benefitting from the different services she received in high school, it only seemed appropriate to continue receiving support through her transition into adult life.

Sarah was connected with Ginny Weekly, a vocational rehabilitation counselor in the Waukegan Field Office, to learn about programs and services. After an initial interview and career assessment, Ginny explained that DRS would be able to pay for Sarah's tuition & fees, and books and supplies towards an Associates of Arts degree. In 2017, Sarah accomplished that goal, graduating with a degree in General Studies from the College of Lake County.

Due mainly to her success at the community college level, Sarah decided that she wanted to go on to complete a bachelor's degree in Social Work. She began researching a variety of scholarships, grants, and other funding opportunities, and was successful in covering the full cost of that degree.

But the transition to a bigger college and living independently led to more stress for Sarah. And during her first semester she began experiencing anxiety attacks again. Even little responsibilities like doing laundry, going grocery shopping and cooking began adding up. That's when Sarah began to seek out the mental health supports to help her monitor her symptoms more effectively. Sarah started to take medications again and started going to a group therapy program which she still attends today.

In 2020, Sarah continued down her path to success and graduated from Northeastern University in Chicago with a bachelor's degree in Social Work. Upon graduation, Sarah began working for Lutheran Social Services of Illinois as a Child Welfare Specialist.

Sarah reports that the supports and services provided by DRS made a significant impact on where she is today. Says Sarah, "The opportunity given to me from DRS to attend the College of Lake County catapulted me into my social work carrier today. It gave me the opportunity to advance my education and reach my goal of finishing higher education.

What is Next?

Sarah SmithThroughout her life, Sarah has been influenced by many people, specifically her family and treatment specialists. The support she needed when she was struggling has helped her to not only be empathetic to others in the same position but has helped drive her towards her next goal, a master's degree in Social Work, with the hope of working for the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS), assisting displaced children so they may have a chance at leading a productive life.

Says Sarah, "In a way it was full circle. When I was 8, I struggled a lot with Anxiety and Depression. I had to work really hard to get in a place that was equal to that of my peers. The work I put in and support team around me in part inspired my sister to join the social work field. Many years go by, and I see the impact on social issues my sister Lauren is making, particularly with homeless members of Lake and Cook County. It was at this time I made the decision to pursue social work as well." Sarah has an older sister who is a Licensed Social Worker and Sarah saw that her sister was making a difference in the communities that she served and thought that was something that she would like to do as well. Sarah's drive and motivation kicked in again as she sought scholarships and was able to cover the cost of the Master's in Clinical Social Work degree online through Walden University and will graduate in June of 2023!

Perhaps the one memory that stood out as being the most meaningful to Sarah in her path to helping others came from the actions and words of her father and mother. Says Sarah, "my family spent a lot of time in Chicago as a kid despite growing up in suburban lake county. If we came to the city which happened quite often for dinners or events, my dad would buy a meal for a homeless man without fail. There was always somebody on the street asking for help and my dad was always the one to answer. Taking them inside to the nearest fast food or sandwiches shop around and buy them a meal. While my dad was inside buying food for the homeless my mom would always explain to us that it's important to take care of the people around us. This will stick with me for the rest of my life. It is another huge driving force into the field of social work. It can all kind of be summed up with one word, that being inspiration."

Rest assured, DRS will continue with Sarah on her the path to success, supporting and encouraging her to achieve her goals, reach great heights and be an inspiration to those around her.