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Social Welfare Advocates Honored

Social Welfare Advocates Honored
Elyn Saks, center, with Esther Gillies, left, and USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn

The life stories of Elyn Saks, Barbara Kaplan and John Milner are as distinct and varied as they are fascinating.

Saks, associate dean at the USC Gould School of Law, has spoken and written about her experiences with schizophrenia and her commitment to mental health care policy. Kaplan was a union organizer who returned to school at 40 and devoted the second half of her life to revolutionizing elder care in Los Angeles. Milner, who passed away in January, was a professor at the USC School of Social Work for 31 years and devoted to children’s welfare.

Though their life paths have been different, they share a common commitment to the improvement of social welfare services in California and beyond. It was for this commitment that they were recognized by the California Social Welfare Archives awards luncheon on March 3 at the USC Galen Center.

Saks received the George D. Nickel Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Welfare for her work advocating for mental health policy. She was also the event’s guest speaker.

“My central purpose in [sharing my story] was two-fold: To give hope to those who suffer from schizophrenia and understanding to those who do not,” she said.

While at Oxford University where she was pursuing her master’s degree, Saks said her life began to fall apart. She was hospitalized twice and began psychotherapy. At Yale Law School, she had a public breakdown and withdrew to go back into the hospital. These experiences shaped her opinion on what she called the destructive use of force and mechanical restraints.

“I’m very pro-psychiatry, but anti-force,” Saks said.

After completing her law studies, she became a professor, first in Connecticut and then at USC. She made several attempts to get off her medication. Her motto, she said, was “the less medicine, the less defective.” After one final, unsuccessful attempt to quit her medication, Saks had a moment of realization.

“I could no longer deny the truth that I could not change it,” she said.

This journey to acceptance of her illness helped shape her professional commitment to mental health care advocacy and patient’s rights.

Kaplan was honored with the George D. Nickel Award for outstanding professional services by a social worker for her commitment to senior services and her continuing work as a volunteer and advocate.

After receiving her Master of Social Work degree at 50, Kaplan opened a senior center through her work with Jewish Family Services.

“When we opened, we were mobbed with older people because they never had some place to go for help,” she said.

Kaplan sought creative solutions to still-familiar problems with funding.

When seniors asked for help with transportation for shopping, Kaplan called up a mortuary and asked what they did with their vehicles when they were not being used for funerals. The mortuary agreed to let them borrow the vehicles for free.

Milner, who was honored at a memorial service earlier in the day, became the first recipient of the Frances Lomas Feldman Excellence in Education Award. Feldman’s daughter, Dona Munker, presented the award to Milner’s niece, Dian Torrance. Munker fondly remembered Milner as a kind and committed man who was beloved by his students and friends.

“Even at the end, I understand he was still curious, still smiling, still asking his gently probing questions,” she said.

Munker and Torrance spoke of Feldman’s and Milner’s friendship and commitment to education.

“Frances and John, what a pair,” Torrance said. “Two pioneers in devotion and dedication to their field.”

The California Social Welfare Archives, celebrating its 30th anniversary, collects and preserves documents and memorabilia related to the history of social work and social welfare programs in California. It is one of only two such archives in the United States.

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