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​​From left, Anne Kosem, immediate past-president of the Association of Pediatric Oncology Social Workers (APOSW), and Helena Gutierrez-Richards, APOSW’s social worker of the year.

The Association of Pediatric Oncology Social Workers (APOSW) tapped Helena Gutierrez-Richards, M.S.W. ’88, as 2017 Social Worker of the Year.

This award honors social workers who demonstrate practice excellence, teamwork, innovation and advocacy both in the field of pediatric oncology social work and in the childhood cancer centers where they practice. Founded in 1976, APOSW has over 300 national and international members and is dedicated to the advancement of psychosocial oncology care for children, adolescents and young adults with cancer, and the families who care for them.

Gutierrez-Richards entered the field of pediatric oncology in the 1980s after her son was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She then worked as a parent consultant in pediatric oncology at Rhode Island Hospital before earning a masters’ degree in social work at RIC. For more than two decades, she has worked as a licensed clinical social worker in the pediatric hematology/oncology division at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I am completely surprised to receive this award,’’ Gutierrez-Richards said. “I have been a member of APOSW for 30 years and always admired the prior recipients of this award. In my mind, they are leaders in our community and exemplary social workers who always go above and beyond for the families they care for. I try to do my best but never considered myself in that same category.''

Gutierrez-Richards said the primary role of a pediatric oncology social worker is to help a family adjust after receiving grim health news about their child.  

“We provide support and emotional intervention based on clinical assessment, helping families find their ‘new normal’ after the diagnosis and navigate the medical system,’’ she said. “We are a bridge that connects families with the medical team and community resources. I believe the most important qualities to possess in my job are to have a heart and to realize that it is an honor to walk side by side with the families we serve.’’

Dr. Eric Sandler, chief of hematology/oncology at Nemours, praised Gutierrez-Richards for her compassion, resourcefulness and competence.

“Our pediatric hematology/oncology program has been enriched by Helena’s tireless efforts over the years,’’ Sandler said. “She supports our staff during the most stressful times and leads our team-building efforts so that we can work cohesively  to help our families during medical, emotional and psychological crisis. As many great leaders have done before her, she has helped teach and empower the next generation of social workers.’’

Heather Oakley, director of social services and a pediatric oncology social worker at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute, a radiation therapy center in Jacksonville, considers Gutierrez-Richards one of her biggest mentors.

"I have had the unique opportunity to work with Helena in different capacities over the last 10 years,’’ Oakley said. “I respect her tenacity, determination and consideration of the ethical implications in her clinical social work practice.’’

Gutierrez-Richards said she credits her educational experience at RIC for much of the success in her 35-plus-year career.

“RIC prepared me for the challenges of the work I do,’’ she said. “I was always encouraged by the faculty and my peers to excel in everything I did while I was a student there and beyond. I still remember some of the professors who saw in me more than I saw in myself.’’