Veteran social worker's magic touch works wonders for Carroll's needy Sylvia Canon's secret -- persistence, dedication

September 13, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

WESTMINSTER -- Sylvia V. Canon often looks at the wooden wand hanging on her office wall and wishes she could wave it at the county's problems.

"If I had a magic wand, I would want affordable housing, accessible public transportation and child care, particularly for infants," she said.

After 22 years addressing the needs of the county's neediest, Ms. Canon, 55, puts more faith in persistence and dedication than magic. As executive director of the Human Services Programs of Carroll County, she has learned to measure success in small steps.

"I used to believe you could fix the world in big pieces," she said. "I know now you fix it in really little pieces."

She easily recalls one of her little pieces -- helping a young mother who wanted to finish her high school education to find a job in a day care center.

"The woman was living on an assistance check and needed day care, a job with regular hours and transportation," Ms. Canon said. "She had the motivation and we had the resources."

Along with a steady income, the job gave the woman ambition. She became a registered nurse and is now getting a graduate degree in social work, Ms. Canon said.

Each case doesn't end in a degree or a three-bedroom dream house. But she makes enough successes happen amid the job stresses to maintain her optimism and spur the 32 HSP staff members to continue those small, vital steps.

"We do what we can, hopefully plug into people's strengths," Ms. Canon said. "We water the seeds and make them grow. Sometimes, together, we find new ways to deal with problems."

Locating resources to deal with problems is one of the most time-consuming processes that the staff faces, she said.

"Resources don't just drop out of the sky. Finding and using what is available is not extra work, but an additional tool."

The names of the problems have changed since Ms. Canon came to Carroll County in 1970, but the dilemmas are the same.

"We didn't say affordable housing years ago, but it's always been hard to find a place to live here," she said. "The vacancy rate continually hangs around 2 percent, and that might as well be nothing."

Ms. Canon now is serving her second term on the Maryland Housing Commission, which she describes as "an interesting mix" of developers, bankers and community activists who are working to provide housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

"At first the commission was a foreign world for me," she said. "I am not a bricks-and-mortar person. I am in the business of seeing that people get what they need."

Now she finds herself more comfortable with the commission and eager to link needy people into its programs.

Her career, which she "just happened into," is a source of pride, she said.

A graduate of Goucher College with a B.A. degree in American Civilization -- "it makes me civilized" -- she began working in Baltimore City's former Department of Public Welfare.

She earned a social work associate license "by reason of years of survival." She succeeded, she said, because of the people she helped.

Dealing daily with people in crisis increases her sense of dedication. "The people I see are genuine caring parents, concerned with what happens to their kids," she said. "They are just like you and me, and there, but for the grace of God, go we all."

Her clients suffer most from economic hardships. They can never buy something on impulse at the grocery store. They can't send out for pizza because it could mean a child won't get his shoes.

"They don't need or want anything different from what we all do," she said.

Her staff members provide each other with a mutual support system that helps everyone deal with the stress of dealing day-to-day with people in crises.

"They work with the heart, not to benefit their pocketbooks," she said.

The staff currently is focusing on a new family support center, which should be completed by mid-October, on the third floor of the Distillery Drive building which houses HSP.

"We'll be able to take care of the kid while mom gets her GED right here," Ms. Canon said.

The annual Christmas project, which is funded through private donations, is in the planning stage. The organization is seeking to convince area businesses and residents to help with the project.

"This county is the most caring and responsive place," Ms. Canon said. "They care for their own. They don't want anyone to be hungry or living under a bridge."

She prefers detailed projects and long-range planning to a daily workload. "I like to find the unmet need, to run over the hill and see what's there," she said.

In her office, she is surrounded by hanging plants and posters with refreshing outdoor scenes.

"This is often as close as I get to outdoors," she said, pointing to her pictures. "I am a workaholic and spend most of my time here. My office has to be pleasing."

If she could wave that wand and make one wish for herself?

"Nothing. I have all that I need," she said. "My children, grandchildren, a home and a job."

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