A REAL Beginning to a New Life: The Social Work Perspective

As a social work intern from Virginia Commonwealth University, I was placed with REAL LIFE. In no time, I noticed many similarities between REAL LIFE and the social work approach further supporting the efficacy of the program. While I am sharing specifically the social work perspective in relation to REAL LIFE’s mission, this is also to encourage the community to identify its role. The resistance towards this population only perpetuates the cycle of recidivism, and we all have something to contribute whether it be professional expertise or even just taking the time to understand.

What makes a social worker? We value diversity and seek common ground—for one, for all. Diversity, though, brings adversities and discrimination, so we challenge that to achieve social justice. Social workers recognize the dignity and worth of every human, consider the person and environment, then work with the person to meet individual needs. We also believe in the power of the community and encourage the self-determination within the individual.

With that being said, REAL LIFE parallels many of these concepts. The services offered at REAL LIFE address social needs and adversities experienced by those impacted by incarceration, homelessness, or substance abuse disorder. In response, REAL LIFE developed five Pillars of Service: (1) sustained sobriety, (2) strengthening family, (3) meaningful employment, (4) community interaction, and (5) faith. The social work biopsychosocial model validates these Pillars. Essentially, this perspective recognizes the whole individual, not just the surface. It is a holistic approach that identifies the underlying factors that contribute to the presenting problem.

We can take this multidimensional model a step further and look at the person-in-society perspective. Once REAL LIFE case managers gather this information during assessment and keep that context in mind throughout the treatment process. Often, I have heard staff say, “You just don’t know where they are going back to when they leave the Center,” and that is exactly the truth of it. With any type of helping profession, you really only see one side of the client. If we are trying to help them successfully, we have to be aware of what we don’t know and how that contributes to the presenting problem. This is also why social workers follow guidelines of trauma-informed care and healing-centered engagement, which REAL LIFE incorporates into their practice

In acknowledging diversity and the varied components of every individual, REAL LIFE encourages a person-centered approach—to do with, not for. The objective is to provide the tools to allow the client to exercise self-determination. Following this model encourages clients’ dignity and worth, while recognizing personal strengths that lead towards a thriving life. Social workers utilize this approach because it establishes a foundation of client strengths and a sense of self-determination. This foundation is essential to progress towards a successful intervention.

REAL LIFE, possibly inadvertently, upholds the core values—service, social justice, dignity and worth, human relationships, integrity, and competence—from the Code of Ethics (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2017). Their approach demonstrates integrity and competence, seeing as how their treatment is evidence-based and proven to be effective (Brown, 2019). Each case manager and recovery specialist bring different qualifications and unique experience that allows for personalized services and holistic treatment. As previously mentioned, REAL LIFE absolutely recognizes the significance of individual dignity and worth, as well as the value of strengthening relationships and improving social skills. The entire REAL LIFE team is passionate in their work, and advocate for social justice and their clients.

So what? Well… we all have something to offer to each other. Obviously, I made the connect between REAL LIFE and social work practice. This doesn’t apply to everyone. What does is our ability to change perspective to see how what we love to do can help others. Especially with populations that are oppressed, we could at least take some time to understand and realize they are human too. To be able to find how we relate to each other, and then work with what we have to help one another… then we might become the change we wish to see in the world together.

Written by Alison Brown, VCU Social Work Intern at REAL LIFE



Brown, A. (2019). Life’s numbers to serve REAL humans. REAL LIFE. Retrieved from http://reallifeprogram.org/lifes-numbers-to-serve-real-humans/

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of ethics of the National Association of

Social Workers. Washington, DC: NASW Press.