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Reporter's notebook: Lobbying for social work in Tallahassee

Monday morning: It was 6 a.m., and I had just arrived in the parking lot to meet the students with whom I would be attending my first-ever Lobby Day. I didn’t know anyone, and I was a little nervous, to say the least. Would anyone talk to me? Would they mind me tagging along?

I glanced over at the group of students that had gathered, all wearing Lobby Day T-shirts. I silently criticized myself for not buying a T-shirt. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I took a deep breath and dragged my suitcase towards the T-shirted group. My contact with whom I had spoken through e-mail for the last few weeks was Vicky Rosenthal, but I had no idea which one she was. I walked up to the first person I saw and smiled nervously. “Hi, can you tell me who Vicky is? I’m Cheryl, the journalism student.” She pointed me in the right direction.

When I met Vicky, I was immediately relieved. She was outgoing and bubbly and she seemed genuinely excited to have me coming along. Vicky, who would be director of the trip, is a graduate student completing her master's degree in social work. She invited me to room with her, which I gratefully accepted, and offered me a seat on the bus close to her so we could talk.

I was anxious to learn everything I could about the issues the group would be lobbying for. I have always had a personal interest in social work, and I felt so fortunate for the opportunity to document the effort. I sat across the aisle from Vicky and introduced myself to my new seat-mate, Susan Silverman, an undergraduate social work major. I hoped she would be interested in talking to me. It was time to jump into the trenches!

As it turns out, I couldn’t have picked a better bus buddy than Susan. She was so informative; she explained everything I needed to know about Lobby Day, and she patiently answered every one of my never-ending questions. What was most exciting about our conversation, though, was how passionate she was about her profession. By the end of the trip, I would come to find that same passion in just about every person I spoke with. Here’s what I learned from Susan.

Lobby Day is a chance for social work students from all over Florida to advocate directly to Florida representatives and senators for bills related to social work being considered by the Legislature. Students travel to the Capitol building in Tallahassee and speak to the legislators face-to-face. The event is organized by the National Association for Social Workers. The organization selects five bills to focus on, but lobbyists are free to advocate for any bill toward which they feel strongly. I would learn more about the bills at the NASW Lobby Day Training Session later that night.

Susan said the bill that she had chosen to advocate for, House Bill 761/Senate Bill 666, would authorize counties to provide funding for services for seniors. Seniors, she told me, are the fastest growing population in Florida, and those with average incomes are struggling. This bill could help those that do not qualify for Medicaid pay for pharmaceutical expenses, as well as prevent premature nursing home placement for sick elders by providing more in-home health services.

Vicky grabbed the microphone at the front of the bus, and announced that we had 73 students going to the Lobby Day this year, the most ever in four years. Everyone clapped and cheered. Then, Vicky told us to turn around in our seats and introduce ourselves to two people we didn’t know. I looked around and smiled. The enthusiasm on the bus was contagious.

Monday evening: We arrived in Tallahassee about 5:30 p.m. and dropped our belongings at the hotel. There was no time for rest: we were off to the NASW Lobby Day Training Session.

At 5:45 p.m.we walked into an enormous conference hall filled with nearly 600 students, sitting at round tables that covered the entire room. We took seats wherever we could find them. The organization had given us all red folders containing informational fliers on each of the five bills it encouraged our advocacy for. The fliers were meant to be given to the legislators; those who supported bills other than those five, like Susan, designed their own fliers. I sat with Susan. We all looked over the NASW fliers and chatted about who was advocating for what issue. I found out which issue weighed on each person’s heart. I began to chime in with my own reflections almost forgetting that I wasn’t a social work student. I had become part of the group.

Everyone quieted down as the first speaker welcomed everyone to Tallahassee, and began announcing each school in attendance. At the name of their school, each group jumped out of their seats and cheered. When they called FAU, I jumped up with everyone else. It was just like those football pep rallies back in high school, but for a very serious cause.

The next few speakers explained in more detail each of the issues. One of the more controversial ones was gay adoption. I learned that Florida is the only state with blanket exclusion on gay adoption. Although gays are allowed to serve as foster parents, they are unable to adopt. SB 460 and HB 413/SB 500 would overturn the ban on gay adoption.

We returned to the hotel by 8:30, and began getting ready for an early start in the morning. A few students came up to my room to further explain some of the issues they would be lobbying for.

First, I spoke with Eric Garza, who would be advocating for HB 811/SB 168, a bill which would create a task force to examine the issue of human trafficking. Eric explained to me that many people from Mexico and Central America are lured to the United States with the promise of freedom by traffickers. The traffickers sneak them across the border, and then charge a fee for their services. The fee is so great that the people spend the rest of their lives in debt.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Eric told me. “You want to take that leap into the United States and make something of your life, and when you do, you find out how difficult it is to get out of debt to the traffickers.” And that debt, Eric explained, is not just a regular debt. “It’s basically where they put a lien against your family. If you don’t pay the money, they will kill your family. They can easily go find your family back home and kill them.”

Next, I spoke with Lyndsi Amirto about gay adoption. Lyndsi and I had chatted on the bus, and I knew she was passionate about the issue. “I feel like there are so many kids that need love, and if a parent is willing to give that, it shouldn’t matter what their sexual preference is,” Lyndsi told me. Yes, gays can be foster parents, but “once those kids adjust and once those parents have become invested in their lives, to then tell them they can’t adopt seems extremely unfair,” she said.

I had learned so much in such a short time. I couldn’t wait to see all their hard work put into action.

Tuesday morning: We arrived at the Capitol building about 7:30 a.m., and it was swarming with students. Most people would be going around in groups, those who didn’t have appointments tagging along with those who did. Vicky had two appointments, one with Rep. Ellen Bogdanoff, and one with President of the Senate Jeff Atwater, and Susan and I would be tagging with her. Vicky’s issue was mental health parity. The bill she was lobbying for, HB 147/SB 354, would require that health insurance companies and HMO’s in Florida provide as equally for the treatment of mental health disorders as they do for physical ones.

We would be seeing Bogdanoff first, and the group members discussed how they would present their case and who would take the lead. We walked into her office, and were led into a spacious conference room. When Bogdanoff arrived, Vicky took the lead. Bogdanoff was receptive, but not very enthusiastic about the mental health parity bill.

For the rest of the afternoon, we made our way around to as many legislators’ offices as we could to drop off our fliers. Susan for example, got a chance to speak with Sen., Nan Rick about her senior services bill.

It was now 2 p.m. and time for our last appointment of the day with President of the Senate Jeff Atwater. He was friendly and welcoming, listened intently to our issues, and even posed for pictures.

Then it was time to get back on the bus. Did the lobbying make an impact? Those who made the trek said the hope so, though they realize getting some bills passed can take years of effort.

"You never know what could turn the tide," Vicky said. "It's about repetition, getting out there, getting it known. The more constituents that make themselves heard, the stronger their voice will be."




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