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Social worker praised for helping the underserved

by Cursta McCullom
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, right, presents Omar Lopez with one of SD Metro magazine's 40 Under 40 Awards. (Photo/Tory Cox)
Photo: San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, right, presents Omar Lopez with one of SD Metro magazine's 40 Under 40 Awards. (Photo/Tory Cox)

Omar Lopez, clinical assistant professor in field education at the USC School of Social Work, has been recognized by SD Metro magazine with one of its 2013 40 Under 40 Awards, which annually honors the best and brightest minds in San Diego.

Chosen from a record 115 nominations, Lopez said the distinction of the award added to its personal significance.

“It’s an honor to receive the award because the other recipients were from different fields that weren’t exclusive to social services,” he said. “It feels great to be recognized for excelling in my field and being active in the community.”

Lopez has been an effective advocate for many underserved populations in the San Diego area, both as a community leader and as an active member of the School of Social Work’s field education department.

He has worked with the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 10,000 civil servants and school employees across San Diego and Imperial counties to improve workplace standards and environments, and he has eight years of experience working for San Diego County as a child welfare social worker.

Lopez is also the first vice chair for the Chicano Federation, one of the largest nonprofit social services agencies in the county and was the former program administrator for the organization’s foster care program La Cuna, for which he worked pro bono and helped set policy for how foster care services are delivered to Latinos under the age of 5.

He has also served as chair of the San Diego chapter of the Latino Social Work Network and is vice chair of the San Diego chapter of the Network for Social Work Management, which is dedicated to improving the quality of organizations by helping managers become effective “people-centered” leaders.

Lopez is also currently a faculty contributor and doctoral candidate to two research projects funded by Department of Defense Education Activity grants: Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools ($7.6 million) and Welcoming Practices That Address Transition Needs of Military Students in Public Schools ($5 million).

Lopez, who had been based at the school’s San Diego Academic Center, is now expanding his work to Los Angeles, where he is working as field coordinator for the University Consortium for Children and Families (UCCF). The program is in its pilot year and aims to better the lives of at-risk children in Los Angeles County as part of School of Social Work Dean Marilyn L. Flynn’s appointment to the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection.

As field coordinator, Lopez oversees the innovative internship model — one based on teaching hospitals — the program is using to train Master of Social Work students to work in child welfare settings.

Lopez previously won the Urban Leader Under 40 Award from the Urban League of San Diego County and received an Angels in Adoption award from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Joining effective organizations that align with his values is important to Lopez, but he also said he looks for volunteer work that keeps him grounded and aware; those experiences then become lessons for his students.

“Community service is satisfying to me because I get to have input in systems that might not be working. As social workers we are supposed to be agents of change, and being a volunteer allows me to do that,” Lopez said. “I would tell my students to have perspective and not to have blinders on. They need to know what’s happening in the community to be better social workers.”

Ruth Supranovich, clinical assistant professor in field education at the school, worked with Lopez prior to their time at USC in County of San Diego Child Welfare Services and said his work ethic and passion for the community speaks to his character.

“For his young age, he has done a lot and shown great leadership. He came from a background that could have sent him on a different path, but he has taken advantage of the opportunities he has been given along the way,” Supranovich said. “He’s made really good choices and formed good relationships for the benefit of his profession because he cares about making a difference in the community.”

Although being recognized for his work brings Lopez joy, he said his motivation comes from the opportunities he was given in his life.

“I’m an immigrant that came to this country when I was 12, and when I was growing up, I realized how lucky I was to make it into college,” he said. “I want to give back because of that opportunity.”

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