In honor of National Social Work Month, we’re highlighting a handful of the many dedicated social workers who stand up every day for the children, youth and families we serve. Becoming a social worker offers you the opportunity to pursue a variety of career paths, from direct clinical practice to administration to advocacy and policy roles. As such, social workers are found at every level, in every department and program area of Children’s Home + Aid.

Meet Leah Ristow, Healthy Start Caseworker at Children’s Home + Aid’s

Tell us about yourself:

I grew up on a farm outside of Cissna Park, IL, a small town with a population of 800 people. My parents, who are farmers, taught me and my sister at an early age the importance of hard-work and kindness. Growing up, many people thought I would end up back on the farm to help my parents. Instead, I decided I needed to live in a place that had – at the very least – a Taco Bell and stores that were open past 7 pm.

I attended Parkland Community College where I obtained my Associate’s degree before completing my Bachelor’s of Social Work degree at Illinois State University. In May of this year, I will graduate from ISU with my Master of Social Work degree. Once I have my MSW, I can begin working toward my LCSW. I’ve lived in Normal for the past 8 years and in my spare time I bartend at a karaoke bar, play sand volleyball, watch reality television and socialize with friends.


What is your most rewarding experience as a social worker?

Last year, I was part of the documentary series Stranded by the State, which documents the human impact of the Illinois state budget crisis. The episode that I was featured in followed our Healthy Start program, including one of our young moms, Rachel and her family. Since the budget crisis began, the Healthy Start program went from employing 6.5 home visitors to 1.5 home visitors, and from serving four counties in central Illinois to just one. As I mentioned in the episode, we’ve missed a whole round of kids – there’s a two-year span of young moms who didn’t get services because of state budget cuts. Through participating in this documentary, I was able to advocate for the program and the families that we serve. The documentary also gave our client Rachel and her family a chance to share their story and the importance of this program. As a bonus, my grandpa now understands my job and what I do each day.

How do you use your social work background in your current position?

During undergrad, I interned at Children’s Home + Aid in the Healthy Start program. After graduating, I stayed in touch with my supervisor and waited until a position opened up. Since I began working as a Home Visitor, I’ve learned the importance of supervision and work-life balance. I’m also a member of the Central Region ARC committee and have had the opportunity to attend various trainings to enhance my skills as a Home Visitor, including Fussy Baby and Trauma 101.


Why does being a social worker mean to you?

The fact that young families voluntarily allow me into their homes in order to better themselves and their children is pretty powerful. My favorite part about my job is building relationships with the families to help them find and develop their strengths. Watching a new mother bond with her child and then going with that same family to a preschool screen three years later is pretty amazing.