After meeting a social worker when she was in high school, Patty Etheridge says her future snapped into focus. She thought she’d be able to change the world as a social worker, eliminating poverty and food stamps.
Etheridge did become a social worker. And while she didn’t change the world in quite the way she’d imagined as a teenager, she knows she’s changed people’s lives for the better.
After graduating from high school and getting her degree in social work from Radford University in Virginia, Etheridge got a job with Lutheran Services Carolinas, then Lutheran Family Services. At the end of March, she will retire after 30 years of service, most of them with the foster care program, a program in which she’s been “an innovator and a leader,” says Chief Operating Officer Myra Griffie.
Etheridge, who earned LSC’s Loyal Service Award last year, is currently serving as lead clinical specialist; she’s also been a regional team manager. She’s never cared much about job titles, she says.
“It’s all about the families,” she says. “I’ve always been happiest doing direct care, working one-on- one with families.”
Etheridge works with both foster parents and foster children to help them achieve their goals. She advocates for the parent to put into place the services a child might need, such as therapy, school enrollment, specialized medical appointments. She also helps foster parents understand what a child might be facing and how to “meet the child where the child is.”
Etheridge began working for Lutheran Services in 1984 as the director of a group home for boys. A few years later she was asked to work in the growing foster care program – and that’s where she’s been ever since.
Back when she started, Bill Brittain was director of Lutheran Family Services, and Etheridge remembers him fondly as someone who made the organization feel like a family. “He was a good leader,” she says. “He set the tone for the employees and the agency.”
With Brittain’s encouragement and support, Etheridge developed a foster care program for medically fragile children. When HIV/AIDS became a major public health issue in the 1990s, Etheridge recognized an unmet need for parents to foster children that had significant medical issues.
Working with hospital social workers, Etheridge helped recruit and train parents to enable them to take on children with challenging medical problems, including HIV/AIDS and shaken baby syndrome.
“She was very strategic in selecting families who could give these babies the stability, consistency, predictability, nurturing and love they deserved,” said co-worker Kathleen Hough. Hough, the regional team manager for the Charlotte foster care program, has worked with Etheridge for almost 30 years.
The program was so successful that social services agencies across the state came to Lutheran Services for help in finding homes for medically fragile children.
Etheridge bonded so strongly with one of the medically fragile foster children in her case load that she formally adopted him. Michael, now 20, is in good health and attending college.
Etheridge says the majority of foster parents she’s worked with have been “very giving people” who chose to become foster parents for the right reasons.
Hough says Etheridge has always been both a team player and a go-getter, someone who attends to details and makes it a priority to do things the right way.
“Patty’s work in foster care has improved the lives of countless children over her 30 years,” Griffie says. “Her passion is strong for children, families and her co-workers. Her work ethic is an incredible testament to that passion.”
“Patty is definitely going to be missed by the team,” Hough says.