"We All Need to Pass the Love Down": Jody Geist's Career in Social Work

By Jody Geist, former social worker at Harlem AcademyJody-Geist.jpg

Jody is the mother of Willie Geist, co-host of NBC's Today Show and Morning Joe and emcee of our annual A New York Winter's Eve fundraising Gala.

In 2014, Willie and his co-hosts had the opportunity to shed light on issues that mattered to them. Encouraged by his mother's career as a social worker, Willie chose to highlight family homelessness and generously helped beautify the recreation room of our Bushwick Family Residence. His involvement with our work and support of our mission continues today!

I am so pleased to learn about my son, Willie Geist's service to Volunteers of America. He is a humble young man and often chooses not to tell us what he is doing during his free time, so it is wonderful to know that he has provided some service toward the excellent work that you do. Most of all I'm delighted that he feels he has learned to help others partly because of his exposure to my work and my commitment to disadvantaged children.

My first social work experience was with the State of Illinois supervising a case load of children in foster care, some of whom were potentially adoptable. Our responsibilities there included building trust with the young clients and preparing them to adjust to new stable homes. This might mean returning to their biological families with supports in place or joining adoptive families once we were able to legally free them for adoption. Some of the “happy endings” have stayed in my memory all these years, like the young couple who added onto their home to take in a family of four children who had been deserted by their mother. Some of the other situations still sadden me, like the teenager who found herself in a group home because her father left home to start a new life with a young wife, and her mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

When Willie was small I was always very eager to pick him up from his babysitter after work and occasionally, if it was appropriate, I took him with me to a home visit. He had lots of questions then and this began his understanding and empathy for others. It was healthy for him to appreciate his good luck in life and that it is important to lend a hand to those who are less fortunate.

A few years later my daughter Libby was born and we moved to New York from Chicago. I spent several years being a mom and volunteering for projects to help children. (I also sold real estate which takes some social work skills!). I missed social work and so, in 1998, I completed an MSW, found a job in schools in Newark, and earned a LCSW license. After moving into Manhattan I was lucky enough to land the social work position at Harlem Academy, an independent elementary school created the year before for underserved, bright students. My role was to develop relationships with students having difficulties, and I counseled and advocated for them in many ways. This school's rigorous curriculum and many enrichment programs prepared students for elite high schools, and now many are entering colleges — something they never dreamed to be possible.

Because of Willie, I served on the Board of Trustees for the New York Harbor School, a school born out of an idea from one of his college friends, Murray Fisher. After many years of fund raising and advocating by Murray and the Board, the Harbor School is now a model theme high school recently relocated to Governor's Island that offers inner city children preparation for opportunities in all sorts of maritime fields. Those of us who participated in building this school are very proud of the successes of the graduates.

Anytime that I am complimented for working in our field I have to smile because we social workers know that we are the lucky ones. We have had the privilege of knowing people of many backgrounds and we have felt the joy of making their lives a little easier. Throughout my career I shared some of the stories about the lives of my clients with my own kids, and now not only Willie and Christina, but also their dear children, give their time and their hearts to help others in a variety of ways. We all need to pass the love down!

Photo Credit: Samantha Okazaki/TODAY