In Conversation with Youth Social Worker – Kanitha Jagatheson

In celebration of Youth Day on 7 July, Kanitha Jagatheson shares her joy of working with young people as a social worker, as well as her challenges and takeaways.

As a social worker, Kanitha Jagatheson has witnessed the resilience and drive of youth with disabilities in her interactions with them. In celebration of Youth Day on 7 July, Melissa Tan, senior communications and outreach executive, finds out how Kanitha shares her joy of working with young people, as well as the challenges and takeaways in this profession.

Melissa Tan: Hi Kanitha! When did you know you wanted to be a social worker?

Kanitha Jagatheson: My sister’s passing in 1997 was the biggest turning point in my life. I was only 7 then, and had no clue about the impact it would leave on me as an individual and my family. I witnessed firsthand the devastation my family went through, and I remember yearning for an older figure who could guide me through the different milestones in life – I believe therein began my journey into unraveling the human condition. Through several turns of events, I was introduced to the medical and social service sector at that young age.​ This exposure, in turn, fueled something deep inside me which I only figured much later, was what led me to pursue social work as a profession, and the want to be there for others.

That’s incredible. Tell us about your work.

As a social worker, case management is a major part of our work. We adopt a client and family-centric model to improve the lives of our clients through financial assistance, counselling, planning intervention goals, making external referrals, as well as running support groups.

When it comes to youth, we also work on developing leadership amongst our youth clients to ensure that every young individual is nurtured and groomed through opportunities to lead and serve others, as well as live their dreams regardless of their limitations. We also provide opportunities for socio-recreational activities to create a sense of belonging and bonding with other peers their age.

Kanitha with Skillseed, a training partner in the SPD Youth Development Programme (YDP) and YDP’s participants

What prompted you to join SPD?

 Back in 2014, a close friend of mine was raising funds for SPD. I’ll never forget this question he posed the naïve sociologist graduate me then: “Notice how we’ve never really seen people in wheelchairs back in school? Is it because there aren’t people with disabilities within our society, or just that our infrastructure is unable to support them?”

That left a lasting impression on me, on how people with disabilities were truly an invisible community amongst us at that point. We had become so accustomed to seeing them only as random buskers on the streets, or as beneficiaries on television programmes, that we were so ignorant of their rights and abilities to pursue an education and career like any non-disabled folk.

That got me thinking about the physical and systemic barriers that existed around us and how I could best contribute and advocate for our differently-abled friends. This friend went on to raise $100,000 for SPD, and I joined SPD as a youth social worker two years later, something I take pride in.

In your opinion, how do you think your work has helped vulnerable youths?

Imagine how daunting it is trying to navigate the world as a youth, wishing you had someone (other than family) to turn to in your lowest and darkest moments, and not knowing where to look in the first place. This is especially worrying in this day when mental health is a pressing concern amongst youths. I hope that’s the role a youth worker can fill, someone to whom youths feel safe to share their true identity or even relationship issues with.

I strongly believe that at the core of it all, every one of us is similar. While we may have different stories to share about our lives, we all go through struggles, disappointments, fear, conflict, and suffering. We all face loss, guilt, rejection one way or another. So if we’re able to look beyond all our differences and truly connect with another individual as a human and make them feel valued, that’s half the battle won.

At the end of the day, what it means to be a social worker is to have someone opening a window allowing you to see them at their most intimate and vulnerable, a position we sometimes won’t even grant our closest friends. And that to me is a privilege I hold very close to my heart. It comes with the responsibility to honour that trust and see them grow through their individual journey. As such, our work as a youth worker does not end after 6pm – it follows a youth until he is strong enough to move on and be able to contribute and help others.

Which part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

Many people seem to think that social work is a thankless job. I disagree.  Perhaps the effects are not seen immediately. It’s a delayed sense of gratification that we get.

I still remember how as a new social worker, I once appealed to an external foundation to assist with the co-payment of my client’s motorised wheelchair. It got approved immediately and my client’s family mailed me a Thank You card to express their gratitude. I cried when I saw that card. It was not a very big amount but I knew it meant a lot to my client in terms of improving his quality of life and giving him a renewed sense of hope with his increased mobility.

Another time, there was some delay in the servicing of another client’s wheelchair. The delay resulted in my client sustaining bad sores on his foot. Afraid that he might succumb to infection, I contacted the vendors quickly and requested that they look into the matter immediately. Things moved swiftly after that and the issue was resolved. Just the knowledge that you hold some power and responsibility as a social worker has indeed empowered me to seek leverage in situations that otherwise might continue getting stuck due to bottlenecks.

Most recently, one of the non-disabled participants in a project that I was leading shared how she has grown from ‘being ignorant about the disability community and their needs’ to ‘actively championing for their rights within her social circles and work community’. It was an emotional moment for us, a validation of our work, and made clear the impact we indirectly create through our programmes.

What are some challenges you have faced?

Managing caregivers while working with youths can be challenging. Don’t get me wrong, and I say this with good intentions, but a lot of caregivers are naturally protective of their children. And I completely understand where they are coming from. But the youths that we work with often display resilience which encourages us to push them out of their comfort zones. It’s no surprise then that I get momentarily upset when a youth wants to attend a particular event or pursue a course, but is stopped by caregivers who are afraid that it might not be safe for their child.

One dilemma I always encounter is navigating between the autonomy of the youth and the concerns of his/her caregivers. It’s a fine line that needs to be tread carefully and with extra sensitivity, but I learn every day while on the job.  However, having said that, I am always in awe of the youths’ creativity, energy, and their fervour to learn.  Their desire to wind down and have fun, just like you and me, is what spurs me and my team to persevere. 

Any takeaways in working with youths?

One of my biggest takeaways from working with youths is seeing the tables turned – instead of always being on the receiving end of aid, it is incredibly moving to see our youths step up, and feel empowered to give back to the community. Their community. Youths today are a lot more driven than we give them credit for – all they require is a little guidance and the right platform. To fail, to learn, and to eventually succeed. Every master was once an amateur – and I hope this is something every individual who comes into contact with the younger generation remembers.

How do you de-stress when you are not at work?

I’m usually catching up with friends over a good meal or drinks. Nothing excites me like good conversations that nourish the mind and soul – I often see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. I read and write quite a fair bit. Also, another hobby in recent years is trying my hand at different sports such as rock climbing, yoga and muay thai, and taking short hikes with friends. I enjoy being outdoors as well, so sometimes you can find me in the company of a friend watching stars, or listening to the waves crashing. It’s therapeutic.

Kanitha on a hiking trip

 Any quotes you live by? 

Two quotes actually.

“If no one responds to your call, then walk your path alone.”

And my all-time favourite –

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. They are there to show us how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

I always find myself returning to these two quotes as a reminder to push on regardless of the struggles and obstacles that appear in life. And to have enough conviction in your purpose to pursue the path in front of you, even if it means you have to walk it alone.