RIC Partnership Removes Barriers to a Community Health Worker’s Dream

Silvia smiles in this profile shot
Rhode Island College Impact

Upon completion of this unique M.S.W. program, Silvia Adames will become a fully licensed behavioral health counselor.

In 2022 the School of Social Work partnered with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) and the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner (RIOPC) to launch a unique program to remove the barriers that prevent professionals who work in home- and community-based services from earning their M.S.W. degree and becoming licensed social work clinicians – professionals like Silvia Adames.

Adames is a 51-year-old community health worker for Blackstone Valley Community Health Care. Through RIC’s partnership with the EOHHS and RIOPC, she has been able to enroll in RIC’s Master’s of Social Work program and receive funding for tuition, fees, books and other aid necessary to complete her degree. What’s more, classes are held in the evening so that she can continue her full-time job at Blackstone.

“To have the opportunity to earn my degree is the opportunity I have been waiting for,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to go back to school, but I could never afford it. My supervisor encouraged me to apply. He said, ‘You’ll make a great counselor because you’re already doing the work, only now you’ll be paid for it.’”

Blackstone Valley Community Health Care and other organizations like it provide services and support to the most marginalized, disadvantaged and stigmatized sections of society. However, it’s because of community health workers like Adames that these organizations are positioned to deliver such services.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Adames has been a Southside Providence resident for 20 years. She understands the local, predominantly Hispanic community and is also connected to the Hispanic demographic that Blackstone Valley serves.

“As a community health worker, I am a bridge between patients and service providers,” she says. “People feel more comfortable talking to someone from their community. They feel freer to tell them about the problems they are facing.”

Among the many issues Adames deals with are human trafficking, domestic violence, homelessness, food insecurity and immigration issues. She is in regular contact with lawyers, law enforcement, physicians and the behavioral health counselors at Blackstone Valley Community Health Care.

“It’s good to know that I can use what I am learning at Rhode Island College to help better the lives of the clients I serve,” she says. “Sometimes I share my own experiences with my clients, but mostly I just listen and let them know that I understand their struggle.”

Certainly Adames has had struggles of her own. In the Dominican Republic she had earned her accounting degree and was a successful professional accountant, while her husband was a chemical engineer, one of the highest-paid professions in Santo Domingo. Their three daughters went to the best schools. “But we lived in fear,” she says. “It became too dangerous to live in Santo Domingo. We left everything to come to the United States.”

Adames couldn’t practice her profession in the United States because the accounting laws here are different. She was told she would need to go back to school and become recertified. But the family didn’t have the money and Adames couldn’t speak English.

So, at age 36 she went to work in a factory and took English lessons in the evening at the local library. After a few months, she entered the home- and community-based services sector, working as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. It was there that she found her true passion.

“I loved the patients,” she says. “I loved listening to them. Many of them never received visitors. Many of them felt alone. I was that person that they could talk to.”

Adames trained and became certified as a medication technician, dispensing medicine to the patients. After 15 years of service at the nursing home, she was injured from lifting a patient. It ended her career. She was 45 years old.

Adames then trained to become a community health worker. At Blackstone, she continues to do what she loves most – listen to patients and counsel them. Upon completion of her M.S.W. program, her dream will have been realized.

“When I heard about this special program at RIC, I saw it as an opportunity. The only reason I hadn’t gotten a degree in the 20 years I’ve been in this country is because I couldn’t afford it. Now I have the opportunity to go to school tuition-free. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Adames admits that going back to school has been difficult. “Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t understand many of the terms in my textbooks nor how to write an AP-style paper, but with the help of my daughters who are college graduates, particularly Jenipher, and the behavioral health clinicians at my job, who look over my assignments, I have been able to succeed. I’ve had four classes so far and I’ve earned A’s in all of them.”

“Silvia brings a wealth of experience to each class and is much appreciated by her colleagues,” notes Assistant Professor of Social Work Lawrencia Okai. “She will be one amazing social worker.”

To find out more about the School of Social Work’s M.S.W. program, contact the M.S.W. program chair:

Dr. Jennifer Meade