Penn Hills counselor organizes third annual awards ceremony recognizing social workers


As the founder and co-owner of Hand in Hand Counseling Service in Penn Hills, Sharise Nance is familiar with the stress social workers in western Pennsylvania face at work.

Nance said she began to see fellow social workers, mental health therapists and frontline workers struggle with what she called “compassion fatigue.”

“We begin to internalize that and find ourselves in a place of emotional distress and burnout,” Nance said.

That led her to write “Overcoming Passion Fatigue: When Helping Hurts,” in 2017. She was addressing an issue that, just three years later, would rise to the top of the news cycle when the covid pandemic threatened to overwhelm some hospital systems and led to a large number of healthcare professionals suffering from “burnout” or leaving the industry altogether.

As a way to help recognize the long hours that she and her colleagues put in, Nance took a suggestion from her husband and expanded it into what will be the third annual Social Worker Appreciation of Greatness, or SWAG, Awards ceremony. It will be March 25 at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, recognizing the work of a group of Pittsburgh-area social workers.

It is presented by Nance’s other business, Vitamin C Healing, along with the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, UPMC and The Heinz Endowments.

Molly Allwein, 38, of Churchill is receiving the SWAG Changemaker Award this year. Allwein is the Director of Professional Education at Pitt’s School of Social Work.

“In my role, I create advanced-level continuing education trainings and programs to educate licensed helping professionals,” Allwein said. “It’s important to me to highlight the fact that I — and most social workers I know — don’t do this work to ‘help’ others, but because until equity is achieved, we’re all in this together.”

That equity extends not only to social workers’ clients, but to those in the profession, Allwein said.

“One of the biggest challenges is pay equity in comparison to other helping professions, eliminating racism and fighting for racial justice and building stronger and more-supportive communities,” she said.

According to a 2018 Georgia State University study, social workers “earn substantially less than comparable employees in other occupations, and the pay disadvantage is growing.”

Social workers, Allwein said, try to help clients navigate the economic and social issues that have been amplified by the pandemic.

“Social isolation is as damaging to our health as smoking and was particularly compounded by the pandemic. Deepening our social connections is imperative for everyone in a community to feel connected, supported and valued.”

Allwein and eight other awardees will be recognized at the March 25 event. The event is sold out.

“I know the experience I’ve had in this field,” Nance said. “Pay that is not really competitive, work that is rewarding but can sometimes feel thankless. It’s been a great experience the past two years and I’m looking forward to the next one.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at or via Twitter .

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