Accountant inspired to become school social worker
For 15 years Lito De Luca was an accountant. Then he and his husband became the foster parents of two brothers, aged 4- and 18-months-old, and this event altered the trajectory of De Luca’s life — and career — forever.
“They became a part of our life and that started opening up inspiration,” De Luca said.” We helped other families too, nine or 10 kids in total, from little ones all the way up to teenagers.”
Exposure to the foster care system and the children who rely on it gave De Luca new purpose. He decided to make serving the needs of children his life’s work, with a dramatic career switch to pursue his Master of Social Work (MSW) at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Just two years later, as he prepares to receive his MSW degree in May 2023, his time as an accountant seems very distant.
Focusing on prevention for school-aged children
De Luca did not originally intend to practice social work in educational settings. In fact, he had never heard of school social workers. His practicum placement advisor at USC Social Work suggested he consider it, and he has not looked back.
“One of the things that is amazing about being a social worker in a school, particularly an elementary or middle school setting, is that you can do a lot of preventative work,” De Luca said. “If we’re able to stop whatever is troubling students at a young age, then it impacts how they look at themselves, how they want to interact with others, and they know how to regulate themselves. Early prevention is the key.”
The youth De Luca served during his internship with the Juvenile Court and Community Schools program in San Diego County were middle and high school students who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, probation, or neighboring school districts that were unable to serve their needs. The program focuses on meeting a broad variety of social, physical and emotional health needs. For example, a number of De Luca’s students were young women who were pregnant or already had children, and he helped connect them to resources for diapers, community organizations, and enrollment in health insurance and food assistance programs.
For his exceptional work going above and beyond in service to his students, De Luca received the 2023 Outstanding School Social Work Intern Award from the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE). De Luca was nominated by his colleagues at Juvenile Court and Community Schools who raved about his ability to inspire some of the toughest students to open up, and helped families in ways they had never witnessed an intern provide support before.
“Lito is going to change the world one student and family at a time,” a co-worker said.
To demonstrate how valuable the SDCOE considers the contributions made by social workers to the education and well-being of nearly 500,000 students in San Diego County, it instituted annual awards for social workers serving the school district three years ago. This is the second consecutive year that an MSW student from USC has received the Outstanding School Social Work Intern Award. “It’s never been more clear that our students and families need schools to be community hubs designed to not only meet academic needs but support the whole child,” said Dr. Paul Gothold, San Diego County Superintendent of Schools. “School social workers play an integral role in the school support team. We are honored to recognize all of our school social workers and interns across the County and congratulate them on this achievement.”
A star in the classroom
De Luca’s USC Social Work professors were not surprised to hear he received this recognition from SDCOE. He was always the first one in the room for class, curious and ready to try new tools or collaborate with his fellow students.
“He was so compelled to find answers to the issues that were in front of him,” said Aimee Odette, assistant teaching professor. “Whether it was a difficult conversation with a peer, speaking out on behalf of a client or suggesting new programming to implement, he was always right there ready to do the work.”
As for his path going forward, De Luca is currently an Educationally Related Mental Health Services (ERMHS) Social Worker for the Vista Unified School District in San Diego. He serves students on five different campuses, predominantly those who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), from kindergarten through high school, as well as young adults returning to complete their high school education.
“One of the things that I learned from Professor Odette is how to break down the walls and overcome each student’s barriers to education,” De Luca said. “I want school to be a place that helps enhance their lives and where they can actually feel safe. I want them to feel they can come here and be with their friends and have a moment where they’re not worried about mom and dad or if their caregiver has money for rent. When they get that support in school, they succeed.”
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