When Jalen Smith was a kid in the Bronx, his family provided him with endless opportunities. He had access to extracurricular activities from after-school tutoring to sports. In high school, he also attended job preparation programs learning how to write resumes and how to interview for positions.
But as he got older, he realized that those resources weren’t available to so many of his peers in the borough.
“I’ve been here all my life,” Jalen said. “And I realized that my childhood experiences were a real blessing. I’ve always had all the resources I needed, and that’s not always the case in inner-city neighborhoods with limited resources.”
That awareness gave Jalen a passion for helping the people of his community. And he had good role models for how to help. Just about all the adults in his family, from his uncles and aunts to his own parents, are social workers. His parents worked in prevention programs, helping to make sure that kids in foster care had safe and happy childhoods.
“Most of my family is in the field,” he said. “I’ve seen the work they’ve done and how they help people. I’m naturally drawn to that. The field of social work has so much to offer, and it’s so rewarding. You really know that you’re supporting families in your community.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Albany, Jalen got his master’s from John Jay College in 2021. A month later, he went to work for Children’s Aid as a case planner in therapeutic foster care.
For the better part of a year, Jalen worked in facilitating adoption for youth in care. In this role, he was tasked with everything from seeing how kids were doing in school to advocating on their behalf in court. “I just loved advocating for the children and making sure that they were doing well,” Jalen said.
Then, in the beginning of 2022, he learned about an open position with our Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect (MST-CAN) program. MST-CAN is a holistic approach for families with children ages 6-17, who have experienced abuse, neglect, or other risk factors. The program aims to provide families with the resources they need to stay together in a safe and healthy environment.
With MST-CAN, Jalen manages cases for 4 to 5 families. He meets with each family three times a week for 45 minutes to an hour, and the program lasts approximately six to nine months, or longer, depending on their specific needs.
“What’s great about the program is that it’s preventative,” he said. “We want to make sure that families have everything they need to work toward change and access support. Breaking the cycles associated with risk factors is so important. Our work helps families understand and address what occurred, and it gives them a second chance.”
The work can be challenging, so Jalen makes sure to take time to recharge when he’s not working. He likes to take pictures, focusing on everything from good food to beautiful things he finds in nature.
“I’ve really learned how to engage in self-care,” he said. “You need to find the balance in your life in order to do the best work for families.”
Most of Jalen’s cases are in the Bronx, and that provides an extra layer of motivation for him. He now lives in the borough where he grew up, and his work helps him feel like he’s continuing his family’s efforts in building a better community.
“To be able to provide people – especially children – with the resources and opportunities that I had when I was a kid?” he said. “That’s the best feeling. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”