It was Nov. 1, 1985, and Craig native Laura Willems’ first day at the Moffat County Department of Social Services.
Willems had just been hired as a part-time, temporary employee to handle cases for the low income energy assistance program, also known as LEAP.
But, what happened when she walked through the department’s doors for the first time 25 years ago came as quite a surprise, she said.
“When I came in, the director said, ‘Oh, by the way, we had somebody leave and you now have the adult caseload in addition to LEAP. Welcome,’” Willems recalled.
Despite being burdened with more than she was expecting on her first day, Willems said she dived into her new job and soon-to-be career.
For the first few weeks, the days felt as if they were “about five minutes long,” she said.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is hard,’” she said. “And today, I know that the workers here work every bit as hard as I have and have the same struggles. It’s different, but it’s the same.
“Not everybody is cut out to do this work.”
On Nov. 12, social services staff honored Willems with a surprise party to celebrate her 25 years with the department.
Williems said she is currently one of the longest tenured employees in the department.
“I feel like it’s an accomplishment,” the 48-year-old Willems said. “I think there are a lot of challenges along the way and that I’ve been able to overcome those.”
After about three years as a full-time adult program and LEAP eligibility technician, Willems took a job in the child support program as an eligibility technician before landing in her current position as the department’s self-sufficiency manager.
Willems is tasked with supervising and managing all eligibility and assistance programs that provide county residents with child support and care, food, and medical and financial assistance.
Despite having a large workload, Willems said the reason she keeps coming to work each morning is simple.
“I guess I feel like I have been able to contribute something,” she said. “To me, I guess I feel successful when I am able to help people who come in our door who need services. Hopefully, we can provide something that improves their life, whatever that might be.”
The task of helping others is always steady, Willems said.
“Something changes constantly,” she said. “I have never been to a point where I don’t know what to do with my time or I feel like, ‘Well, 25 years, I come in and do the same thing everyday,’ because I never do.”
But, 25 years of constantly busy days has afforded her a great deal of personal growth, Willems said.
“You go along and you are constantly learning something new, whether it is a rule, a regulation, something about behaviors, or different or better ways of how to help people,” she said.
Helping people has become a strong passion of Willems — a labor of love, of sorts.
“I guess, to me, helping people is helping them find resources and tools that allow them to do what they need to do to be successful,” she said.
Willems said she doesn’t often see the immediate effects of the department’s work, but she knows it’s helping at some level.
“I think that you need to be able to feel accomplishment and success without exterior reinforcement,” she said. “We don’t always see the outcome of what we do. Periodically you do, and that’s wonderful.”
Over her 25-year career, even though much about how the department assists residents has changed, the basic reasons why people need help are much the same, Willems said.
“I’ve seen people struggling with the same issues that they were struggling with back then,” she said. “It has a lot to do with personal choices, the economy, local situations.”
But, one of the philosophies Willems has developed over time is trusting that people know what they need and to let them decide when it is time to seek help.
“That is kind of a respect,” she said. “If somebody is really struggling and they could be potentially eligible, I would encourage them to apply. But if that is not something they chose to do, I would also support that decision.
“A lot of people know what it is that they can do and are willing to do, and I respect that decision.”
Life changes, whatever they may be, are hard for anyone, Willems said.
But when it comes to helping people through those changes, the social services department isn’t “magical,” Willems said.
“Most people have a lot of things within them, and it’s about helping them find those things,” she said.