MARQUETTE - While her friends were pouring over Teen Beat or magazines of that ilk, sixth-grader Kathleen Bengtson was reading Psychology Today.
"I've always wanted to help other people," she said. "It's just one of those things."
It might have taken some time to get there, but Bengtson is now in a job she has always wanted: She's the newest social worker at the Marquette Senior Citizens Center.
Right, Kathleen Bengtson, the newest social worker at the Marquette Senior Center talks with Midge Mattson who helps in the office at the center. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
It was a career she wanted for as long as she can remember, but one others thought she she should not pursue.
"They talked me out of going into social work," she said. "It was all the usual stuff, like the job doesn't pay well and it is depressing. They gave me all kinds of reasons."
Bengtson looked at psychology, music, audiology and early childhood education as potential majors, then the Ishpeming native married and had two children (Andrew, now 31, and Kate, 29). She stayed at home with her children, teaching piano for many years.
"As a piano teacher, I found I was always wanting to help my students and their parents," Bengtson said.
When she decided once her children were older that she wanted to attend Northern Michigan University to pursue a degree and she followed her heart.
"I said to myself, 'that's it, I'm doing it, I am going back to school,'" she said. As she made that decision, a neighborhood girl came into her home and talked about running away from home.
"That's when it came through to me loud and clear I was thinking along the right lines," Bengtson said. "Social work was right for me."
She returned to school in 1992 and has been in the social work field since 1995. At first, she worked in grant-funded programs, but found the uncertainty that comes with those programs too difficult to live with.
In 1998, she started work with Teaching Family Homes and stayed there for a dozen years.
"But I always, always wanted to work with seniors," Bengtson said.
An opening at the Negaunee Senior Citizens Center for a social worker came up and Bengtson started there, but then a few weeks later, was hired for the same job at the Marquette center.
She has worked in her job since June 20.
"It has been absolutely wonderful," she said. "I have met some incredible seniors. The seniors are so appreciative of anything you do for them. They are great."
For those who don't know what a senior center social worker does, well, the list is lengthy.
"Our main goals it to keep seniors independent and safe in their own homes," Bengtson said. "We will assess the situation and look at what we can do to help that happen. And what we can't do we then look to others to help fill the gaps."
The "whats" can include something as simple as obtaining a wheelchair or walker for senior who needs help getting around to something as complicated as helping with Medicare/Medicaid claims.
Social workers also are concerned about seniors' food supplies, making sure they have enough healthy food to eat, and with their medical needs, making sure to touch base with a primary care physician to see that the senior is taking necessary medications.
"One of the biggest things we do is to set up homemakers aid, which can include cleaning, laundry and changing the bed linens, which is something seniors often have trouble with."
But often, the senior needs something fundamental to all human beings.
"We provide a listening ear," Bengtson said. "Sometimes they just need someone to listen."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.