The Caring Force Blog Workforce Hero Spotlight: Hanifa Nelson-Kamau

The Caring Force is pleased to announce that our next workforce spotlight honoree is Hanifa Nelson-Kamau, a Program Director at Advocates. Hanifa has worked in human services for the past 20 years – both in direct service and supervisory roles. She is currently overseeing several residential programs and is also the leader of two isolation units for individuals with COVID-19.

Hanifa grew up in Dorchester and is the youngest of six siblings. In addition to her human services work, she has made a career in theater, beginning at age 5 when she made her first stage debut in Black Nativity, a play by Langston Hughes, at The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and the National Center of African American Artists. Since then, she has performed for Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and countless political figures and celebrities. She is married and has two children.

Here is what Hanifa said when we asked about her career:

Tell us about your background. How did you decide to pursue a career in human services?

“I always knew I would be in a caring profession at some level. Twenty years ago, I became a direct care worker on weekends. My son had health problems, and as a single parent, I needed to be free on weekdays to take him to medical appointments. I found that I was good at listening, advocating and doing the reading and research necessary for people to get what they needed. My experience with my son helped with that.

Eight years ago, my son had a kidney transplant and no longer needed dialysis, so I went to work at a day program in order to have family time. A Division Director that I knew at Advocates recruited me to become a Program Manager, and I am now a Program Director.”

What is your favorite professional memory?

“Working at the very first group home with a little old lady, very set in her ways. She had lived most of her life in an institution. Every day she came home and threw her jacket on the floor. I got the idea to teach her to hang up her jacket – though all her history said that would be impossible. But I thought it was important that she know how to take care of herself. I was patient – tried to teach her, reassure and encourage her, and then one day, she hung up her jacket! Knowing I contributed to this was very satisfying.”

How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?

“Most recently I have been responsible as the leader of our two “isolation units” – working with amazing staff. They want to be here, volunteered to be here, and are completely dedicated and committed to making sure people are well.

It’s the emotional context that is so hard – the importance of being reassuring, while truthful, in the face of so much uncertainty. The hardest part has to do with family members and guardians – in cases where there was a language barrier, they were worried they were sending their family members away to die.  We knew how important it was for one mother to be able to see her son, to know that he was in good care, and so we worked to make that happen.”

How have you coped with that challenge?

“I sing – I am involved in music and theatre and had my first ‘First Lady’ role on stage last fall. Sometimes I just sing in the car! It is what I find most helpful.”

Thank you to Hanifa and all the other tireless staff helping to provide services to clients and families throughout the pandemic. You are the Commonwealth’s human services heroes!

The Caring Force will be publishing additional workforce spotlights through the pandemic in an effort to raise the voices of workers on the front lines. If you know someone who inspires clients and embodies the spirit of The Caring Force, please nominate them by emailing Ravi Simon at rsimon@providers.org.

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