Social Services Director will retire
By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 16, 2008 1:46 PM
Judy Pelt was just 12 years old when she read a book that changed the course of her life and in doing so changed the lives of the thousands of people she has touched over the past three decades.
She no longer recalls the book's title or author, but she vividly remembers the passion for social work it sparked within her.
It is that passion to help others, she said, that is shared by everyone who works in the Wayne County Dept. of Social Services.
Next month, Mrs. Pelt will retire after 33 years with the department, the last seven of which she has served as director.
It is a career that almost ended before it ever got started.
On her first day on the job she went to visit a "little old lady" in Mount Olive.
The house was on a small dirt street. Mrs. Pelt said she wasn't sure if it was best to drive down the narrow street, back in or just park and lock her car.
As she approached the house she noticed what she thought at a glance was a "kitten" resting inside a window.
"When I got in the house I realized that the kitten was a rat," she said. "There were tame rats, the biggest rats I had ever seen in my life."
When she got back to her office she told her supervisor, Hilda Strider, that she didn't think she would be able handle the job. Mrs. Strider's response was "to go home and sleep on it and you will feel better in the morning."
She did and continued with the job.
Mrs. Pelt graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in social work. But she didn't immediately get into the field. She got into the tobacco field. She met her husband, Jerry, at ECU and they married in 1974. After graduation she was unable to find a job and worked for a short time on her father-in-law's tobacco farm.
It was after she transplanted a row of tobacco plants upside down and was sent to back to the plant beds to pull plants that she decided she needed to find another line of work.
She found that job as a district social worker with the Wayne Social Services Department. Back then, the county was divided into districts and she had Mount Olive and Dudley.
"I thought, 'I'll be here a few years and then move on to bigger and better things' and here I am 33 years later -- still here," she said.
She became an adult home specialist working with adult care homes in the county and later moved into the adult protection services.
When Mrs. Strider, who was supervisor and assistant director, retired, Mrs. Pelt assumed that position. She became social services administrator before being named director in 2001.
The department had less than 50 employees when she started. It now has 194.
"I think the reason we are so successful in our agency is the fact that I think you have got to have a real passion to do this work," she said. "Everybody who works here is passionate about what they do.
"I tell people all the time 'where else can you work and have the opportunity to change people's lives.' You are feeding people, you are making sure they have medical care. You are making sure children are safe. You are making sure adults are safe and that elderly people have access to medical care. You really directly affect people's lives and are providing the basic necessities of life. There are not many jobs that you can go to and say that."
She credited her success to the people who work for her.
"I say a staff can make you look really good or really bad. The employees in this department have made me look really good. It wasn't because I was the greatest leader or manager. It was because I have workers who come to work and are committed to what they are doing and want to do a good job, and they are successful. I am passionate about what we do. The employees at the department have made me look good and they are successful."
"In my Utopia, social workers would work themselves out of a job, but in reality there probably will always be those people out there who need us. We will always have people in need, children being hurt. We are here to help these people any way possible," she said.
A state program, Leading by Results, was started three years ago when the state Association of County Directors of Social Services realized that social workers were good about talking about processes and numbers when people asked about what they do, Mrs. Pelt said. But they also realized that most were not good about talking about results, she said.
"Wayne County is very result oriented," she said. "We are real proud of the results."
"It is not just a matter of processing a food stamp application. It is the fact that these people have food and that they are able to feed their families," she said.
Having results documented helps when it comes time to ask the county commissioners for support, she noted.
"Talking about results helps during budget time," she said. "We are able to talk in terms of what we are trying to achieve and how our budget requests relate to those results and how we are going to achieve them."
Over the years, the number of caseloads has grown dramatically, Mrs. Pelt said. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people come through the DSS offices each week now.
Although July 31 will be her last day on the job, it won't be the last day she works. Mrs. Pelt said she would like to continue to do some form of social work.
"It won't involve supervising, purchasing and no personnel," she said. "I still want to do social work. That is where my passion is."
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