Eighteen Months in the Big Apple

Rebecca Davison tells how those with a background in social work can find work with the Young Adults Institute in New York.

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Social Work in New York

 

New York, New York so good they named it twice and all those clichés. I'd never been to New York until I moved there for work in 1998, but you don't have to go to New York to have an archive of images in your mind. Song, books, films have documented the city in a million different ways but the sheer wonder of the place doesn't render it clinched when you see it for real.

Cops really do sit in patrol cars eating doughnuts; steam comes out of vents in the street and the sight of the Manhattan skyline at dusk as you speed towards it in yellow cab made me feel wildly euphoric and optimistic. "Look at me, I'm on top of the world Mama" just to get another gratuitous movie reference in.

I moved to New York in 1998 to work for a company called YAI, the Young Adults Institute a non-for profit organisation providing services for people with learning disabilities. Or as the Sherman would say (yanks-planks-Sherman tanks) people with "mental retardation and developmental disabilities"

For people not familiar with this area of work the term "mental retardation" is of the era of political tolerance that saw posters stating "No blacks, Irish or dogs" in this country but is still in common usage in the states. This would seem at odds in the homeland of political correctness but as the George Bernard Shaw said "America and Britain are two countries divided by a common language". 

YAI is an enormous organisation providing services for over 8,000 people throughout New York City and into New York State. These included residential homes, day centres, medical services etc. Staff required to run all this includes residential and day centre staff, psychologists, etc.

So if you have any background in social work this could be your chance to work in New York. You do not need to be a qualified social worker, nor do you need to have had experience with this particular client group. Voluntary experience and the right attitude can qualify you.

Pay and conditions are contingent on your experience and skills. Pay starts at around $22,000* P.A. for basic grade residential staff. This is pretty poor pay, you will not have a Friends West Village Lifestyle on this salary. But there are bonuses you get to claim your tax back at the end of the year and over time is available to most staff. Essential when you are saving for the Pink Corvette to do your Thelma and Louise style road trip or to keep you in the rock and roll lifestyle you wish to succumb to.

The cost of living is also cheaper than London. Weekly travelcards for all zones are $20.00. Food is cheaper but for a city obsessed with food the supermarkets are diabolical.  You'll learn where to indulge your taste buds wanderlust for less than $5.00 so it's no great hardship.

Accommodation is tricky. The company will provide accommodation for you for around $500 a month and will where possible accommodate you near work. In my case the first 6 months was spent in a rinky-dink clapboard house in suburban Queens complete with immaculate lawns. The only movie reference for me of quiet suburban American streets all feature homicidal maniacs stitching together the skins of their young female victims whilst supping on a nice bottle of Chianti and liver a fffffer. I was much happier in down town Brooklyn.

Alternately you can arrange your own accommodation in NYC. Unless you are a trust fund kid or have some other entrepreneurial talents dealing stocks and shares or drugs you won't be able to afford Manhattan. There are already 8 millions inhabitants on this crowded little island and attempting to stake you claim on these wages is impossible.

Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island are the other four boroughs in NYC. You will have to suffer the indignity of being referred to as a bridge and tunnel kid by Manhattanites (how you get onto the island) but you can afford the rents.

It would be impossible and doing the diversity of the boroughs a disservice if I tried to categorise them. Whilst New York is racially diverse it is also far more segregated than the UK There are those that would argue that this is a good thing allowing neighbourhoods to retain and nurture its own ethnic identity and culture. I'm perched on the fence for this debate but it is a consideration when deciding where to live.

Once you've found somewhere to live there is then the problem of Realtors. Short of asking for you're first born they will ask for everything else: months rent in advance, references, a fee etc. It makes apartment hunting difficult but not impossible. If you do go this route then you at least don't feel so shackled to the company and will be living with Americans as opposed to your fellow European wage slaves.

The company recruits in both London and on the continent once a year, but due to the times when people are available to start etc. there are always new people arriving. 

In terms of the work due to the size of the organisation and the diversity of the posts available it is hard to generalise. American working practices in this field are very different to the U.K. Remind yourself of the G.B Shaw quote and remember this is a foreign country. No shit Sherlock I hear you say but I would say any of the difficulties I had in a professional context where culturally based.

The company does provide extensive training and will try their best to accommodate and support the "internationals", as you are known e.g. sorting out visas, accommodation etc. Contracts are offered on an initial eighteen-month basis but people do stay longer. This again is dependent on your career prospects and the vagaries of the American immigration service. The company recruits in both London and on the continent once a year, but also interview in New York year round if you happen to be in the vicinity of the Big Apple.

The work is demanding, you have to be a team player and really enjoy working with people to do this job. In my eighteen months I rode the emotional roller coaster both personally and professionally from jubilant and frustrated to challenged and exhausted. I had an unforgettable time that still leaves me a sentimental weeping mess whenever I hear "New York, New York so good they named it twice.."

More Information
YAI, 460 W34th St, New York, New York, 10001, USA
www.yai.org

Further Reading
Live & Work in USA & Canada - the latest edition is available from amazon.co.uk 

* Wages and other figures given may have changed since article first published

Images courtesy Yann Gar