Fall 2011 Issue

Leading with their hearts

How the Cherry family overcame past struggles and ended up making 'Barry School of Social Work history'

By Whitney Sessa

Most families have common traits such as eye color, freckles or face shape, but the Cherry family shares a distinct characteristic that bonds them together — a strong desire to help others.

Mother Kathie Cherry, daughter Khurshiba Cherry, son Leonard Ross and soon-to-be daughter-in-law Gina Bennett all followed their passion into the field of social work, where together they have made "Barry School of Social Work history" as the first family to be simultaneously enrolled in same degree program, according to Mabel Rodriguez, director of admissions.

In December, Kathie graduated from the School of Social Work's MSW program, paving the way for Khurshiba, Leonard and Gina, who all enrolled in the program this past fall, just in time for Kathie's final semester.

"Having the Cherry family simultaneously enrolled in the MSW program speaks volumes about the mother, Kathie, and her desire and determination to advance her knowledge, skills and abilities to serve vulnerable members of our community," said Dr. Phyllis Scott, dean of Barry's School of Social Work. "Her genuine commitment to professional growth and service has inspired a generation, and we are honored they chose Barry University School of Social Work to be a part of their extraordinary journey."

After battling an addiction to drugs for more than 13 years, Kathie, 51, found inspiration from a social worker who spoke at a drug and alcohol support group meeting. The two exchanged phone numbers and began checking in with each other frequently.

"We had a connection," said Kathie, who became drug free following the birth of her daughter in 1989. "She came in and took me under her wing. She saw potential in me to go on and better myself in society."

Kathie spent 23 years working for the Department of Children and Families as a clerk before being laid off in 2005. During most of the '80s, she battled her drug addiction and struggled financially as a single mother. "We were a paycheck away from being homeless. When I was laid off, I had to apply for food stamps and unemployment," she said.

While tremendously difficult to have lived through, these personal struggles are exactly what allow her to empathize with and relate to her clients. In effect, they are why she views her work as a calling rather than a job.

"Being a social worker is something you can't just have as a job; it's something that you really have to want to do," Kathie said. "In the past, I've seen social workers who were just there to collect a check. But I know what it's like to be on the other side of that desk, and I believe that you must always treat people how you want to be treated."

"Another big distinction, which I feel makes the children's lives tougher is that they're there without their own parents and have to grow up without the true family experiences I had," he said. "Luckily, they have a caretaker like Melawan, one who supports them financially and emotionally, with the hopes of giving them a chance at a better future. Meeting her and the children definitely made me think about the whole idea of what it means to make a contribution in life."

Her experiences working at DCF and a promise made to her late brother who died in 1994 prompted Kathie to return to school and become a social worker, she said. In 2007, she earned a bachelor's degree in human services from St. Thomas University and in 2010 she earned an MSW from Barry's School of Social Work.

Today, as a social services specialist for St. Alban's Enrichment Center, which enrolls nearly 200 children, Kathie continues to work one-on-one with families, meeting with them monthly to help them set short-term and long-term family goals while directing them to any needed resources and services.

Kathie's lifelong struggles as a single mother and recovering drug addict have inspired her daughter Khurshiba, 24, to also want to help others — and herself.

"My hero is my mother," said Khurshiba, who struggled with low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts during high school and college. "She's shown me that no matter what mistakes or choices you make in life, you still have time to make changes and be that person you want to be."

Like her mother, Khurshiba has also learned to use her personal hardships to help her clients. "As a social worker you have the chance to explore different aspects of life and have contact with people from a variety of backgrounds, as well as people who are at different stages of life. Whatever their situation, everyone needs that other person they can talk to," she said.

In 2010, Khurshiba founded the KCherry LLC Agency for Persons with Disability, a Miami-based agency that services clients who are developmentally disabled. In addition to building her agency and earning her MSW, she also plans to pursue a doctorate in family counseling, hoping to one day open her own counseling practice.

A once-troubled teen, Kathie's son Leonard, 32, also uses past struggles and difficulties to inform his work at the Village South in Miami. Leonard works one-on-one with adolescents from the juvenile justice system, serving as a mentor to help at-risk youths return to school and develop their strengths.

"These kids can relate when they see someone who's been where they are," said Leonard, who served a two-month jail sentence as a teen. "I'm not the traditional case worker; I understand where a lot of them are coming from."

Following the completion of his MSW, Leonard plans to pursue a doctorate in theology.

As with the rest of the family, Gina Bennett's early experiences also drew her to a career in social work." As a child, Gina, 25, spent a lot of time in hospitals and nursing homes, as her mother battled multiple sclerosis. Her family relied on a social worker as a vital part of their support system, she said.

"While my mother was in ICU, she (the social worker) was more concerned about our family, whereas the doctors and nurses were mostly concerned with the patient," Gina said. "She really helped me and my family through that time."

When her mother passed away in 2007, Gina switched her major from nursing to social work. "I just felt that as a medical social worker I could help others cope in similar situations," she said.

Gina, who also works as a family intervention specialist in Miami, hopes to become a licensed clinical social worker and work in hospice or some other health care setting.

"The main thing that impresses me about the Cherry family members is their sincere desire to complete their social work education, to work to provide services for others in the community and to better themselves in the process," said Dr. Walter Pierce, associate professor for Barry's School of Social Work. "They are an interesting family, and though each is unique in their own way, I have enjoyed working with every one of them."

Ultimately, there's also no denying a particular characteristic that unifies the Cherry family: their compassion for others. "That's our defining trait — our hearts," Leonard said. "We all have big hearts."

Whitney Sessa, a former communications coordinator in Barry's Office of Communications and Marketing, is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Miami.