Paloma Silva Coelho
DANBURY, Connecticut — COVID-19 hit everyone hard, but for families struggling with food insecurity or language barriers, the virus was even more vicious. At South Street Elementary School in Danbury, where more than a quarter of the students come from economically disadvantaged families, their struggles were amplified by the lockdown. Thankfully, school social workers like Paloma Silva Coelho stepped up to try to alleviate the stress. Because of her efforts on her students’ behalf, Coelho has been designated as a hero by the WCSU Alumni Association for her contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coelho was nominated by WCSU Alumni Association Board Member Monica Sousa.
Currently a New Milford resident, Coelho grew up in Danbury. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Social Work with a minor in Spanish from Western Connecticut State University in 2009, and went on to pursue a Master’s in Social Work from Fordham University in 2013. Coelho is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). She’s also trilingual: fluent in English, Portuguese and Spanish.
Coelho said her background includes experience in serving children and adolescents with a range of neurological and psychological disorders, including intensive in-home care through the IICAPS Program and providing outpatient care as a LCSW at Family and Children’s Aid-Child Guidance Clinic.
“In addition to my clinical work, I also have experience in forensic interviewing,” Coelho said. “I held the position of Bilingual Forensic Interviewer for the Multidisciplinary Investigation Team at Family and Children’s Aid in Danbury.”
As a school social worker, Coelho said she has seen and dealt with a myriad of issues within the student community, but almost nothing could have prepared her to deal with the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the lives of her students, their families, fellow staff members and in their personal lives.
Coelho explained, “On a daily basis, social workers have intensified the fight against increased mental illness, loss of income, elevated stress, food insecurity, lack of access to health care, chronic absenteeism and many other issues that continue to plague our students’ households. The reality is that school social workers like myself and many of my colleagues never stopped advocating and will be continuing to address these needs long after Covid-19. But, in a true social work fashion, we must find the positive in this experience. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, I believe, it’s that collectively, we’ve realized that learning won’t happen if we don’t meet the physical, social and emotional needs of our students and their families.”
Even though the pandemic was unexpected, Coelho relied on something she had learned during her undergraduate studies at WCSU to help her navigate the unknown.
“I remember something Social Work Professor Patti Weisman Ivry said to me that resonated with me throughout my entire career. She once said, ‘You can have all the knowledge in the world, but no work will be done if you cannot connect with your clients.’ This statement was so important and true. I learned early on in my career that my biggest tool as a social worker would be my ability to effectively develop a good relationship with my students and their families. I take a lot of pride in building rapport through empathy and acceptance.”
Coelho said that when the Covid-19 pandemic happened, she knew how to help her families because she already had an established rapport with them and knew each of their individual needs. “If there is one thing I love about our school community, it is that South Street School is a place of comfort, support and trust for many of our students and their families. Our families do not fear us, they seek us in moments of need. They see us as light that can get them through dark times.”
Coelho emphasized that she is grateful to be part of a school community that understands just that. “I have witnessed first-hand the incredible staff at South Street School putting in many hours of work to accommodate the needs of each student. Many who reach out to me daily to brainstorm ways to get a student to engage socially, to attend class more regularly, and to support families with meals and other necessities.
“One of my proudest moments as a school social worker during a pandemic happened in December, when I was able to organize a toy drive, mostly supported by our amazing teachers and staff, where we raised toys for 30 of our neediest families,” Coelho said. “I am also grateful to the amazing community organizations (Toys for Tots, United Way, 7th Day Adventist Church in Bethel, Knights of Columbus, The New American Dream Foundation) that I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with. Because of our combined efforts, we were able to provide South Street students with winter coats, hot meals, toys, as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. As a team, we have worked tirelessly to advocate and support our students because we know ‘A child can’t learn on an empty stomach.’”
Carmen Vargas-Guevara, principal of South Street School, was not surprised to hear that Coelho has been honored by WCSU.
“Paloma Coelho has been a South Street School social worker since August 2018. She is an integral part of South Street School’s staff,” Vargas-Guevara said. “Her commitment to our students, staff and families goes above and beyond to ensure that all receive the support needed to have a successful school year. Last fall, South Street was named a National Blue Ribbon School. Mrs. Coelho’s contributions to our students’ overall social and emotional well-being was instrumental in our school’s national academic accomplishment. Her knowledge and expertise in seeking resources has been significant to our families, especially during this pandemic. As the voice and instructional leader for South Street, I can confidently state that we are blessed to have her as a member of our school community. Hence, we are not surprised that she’s been selected as an Alumni Hero at Western Connecticut State University. We are very proud of Mrs. Coelho, and this well-deserved recognition.”
The WCSU Alumni Association is looking for WCSU alumni who have made tremendous contributions to their communities. The Alumni Association will award the Distinguished Alumni Service Award to alumni who have gone above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could mean providing community support, putting in extra time as an essential worker, and so on. When possible, the Alumni Association hopes to honor all recipients with an on-campus celebration.
Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.