Donna Rhodes Emerson’s decision to pursue social work grew out of many influences. Her parents encouraged a path that emphasized achievement, high standards, and altruism, and most of her family members worked in helping professions like ministry or medicine. One of the biggest inspirations of the group was her uncle, who was an internist and a professor at Louisiana State University. He would take Ms. Emerson on rounds to see his patients, and she admired the close relationships he built there. As she grew older, she began exploring her own place in the industry. She spent a year in high school as a nurse’s aide, as well as two summers as a dental assistant and receptionist and a third summer as a camp counselor with emotionally and developmentally disabled adolescents. Another factor in Ms. Emerson’s career choice was timing. She grew up during a period of unrest in the United States, and became increasingly concerned with civil rights. Ms. Emerson thus became involved with “Project Motivation,” which helped underachieving children at the Berkeley YWCA in California, and with The Arc.
Praised for her work with both children and adults, Ms. Emerson felt it was only natural to complete graduate school in social work. She ended up earning a Master of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968 and 1966, respectively. Ms. Emerson furthered her professional standing with an internship in public administration at the Greater Cleveland Associated Foundation, a California-registered social work certificate, a pupil personnel services credential, and board certification in clinical social work. She also became a LCSW in the state of California.
Degrees in hand, Ms. Emerson set out to make her mark. Her first position was school social worker in the Special Education Diagnostic Center of the San Francisco Unified School District. There, she performed psychosocial evaluations for 85 visually handicapped children, 43 aphasic children and 125 home teaching children, as well as provided school placements and follow up visits. In each of her programs, Ms. Emerson developed parent support groups. Then, in 1973, she decided to branch out on her own and open her own private practice. During her time there, which lasted until 2015, she aided clients in individual and groups with diverse sexual, socioeconomic, ethnic and disability issues. One of the highlights of Ms. Emerson’s journey was escorting a group of visually impaired teenagers to meet with San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein about support on public transportation and in schools. Their efforts were successful. Another highlight was integrating a sighted Girl Scout troop with visually handicapped girls to help establish friendships and share scouting experiences.
Outside of her practice, Ms. Emerson served in roles like supervisor of social services at the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind, where she oversaw a staff of eight, handled client caseloads, and provided short and long term counseling, crisis intervention, hiring, and team and agency coordination. Other positions include medical social worker at Novato Community Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital, full-time social worker and team-building specialist at Clarke Home Nursing Service, and consultant at the Headstart Program. On the academic side of the spectrum, Ms. Emerson was an adjunct instructor in the Psychology and Counseling Departments at Mendocino College and an adjunct instructor in the Counseling Department and the Human Services Program at Santa Rosa Junior College.
When Ms. Emerson has free time, she enjoys gardening, reading, photography, hiking, and being with nature. She has also become more engaged with writing endeavors. Ms. Emerson had been writing professionally throughout her career, but she shifted her focus to poetic and creative publications upon her retirement. She is notably the author of 2019’s “Beside the Well” from Cherry Grove Collections and the recently published “The Place of Our Meeting” from Finishing Line Press. The latter was nominated for a California Book Award in 2018. More about her poetry and books can be found on her website.