Operations manager advocates for adults and at-risk youth in New York’s Westchester County
Kristel Williams is an operations manager supporting the Delaware Division of Family Services (DFS) and adult services for Westchester County, New York.
Where are you from, and how did you get into this field?
I was born in Trinidad, raised in New York, and now live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was always just very interested in this field. I've had many experiences growing up with children who were autistic or had special needs. So, working with that population always sparked my interest, and I was interested in psychology.
I've been in this career field since I graduated college about 16 years ago. Before I started working at Maximus, I was a case manager – helping adults in the community with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Before that, I worked at a school for children with autism.
What do you do at Maximus?
As of March, I have been working for Maximus for eight years. On the Delaware Division of Family Services (DFS) project, I apply for disability benefits on behalf of the children in foster care. I make sure the benefits remain intact, which is especially helpful when they age out of foster care or transition back home. In Westchester County, I help adults with their disability claims and represent the clients at the hearing level when necessary. I help people who may not be able to advocate for themselves. I love my job.
When we can see the immediate impact on our client's lives, that's just so rewarding, especially when it has taken so long for their applications to get approved. Helping people through that final hurdle is really rewarding.
What does "a day in the life" in your job look like?
Every day is different. I have regular calls with Social Security to review or follow up on cases. or we'll screen the notes from DFS to see if anything pops up regarding a disability for the children. I'll research, gather background, and collect all the documents supporting disability claims.
For the Westchester project, we work with adults. Sometimes, working with these clients can be more challenging because they've been waiting for benefits for years. The Social Security process can take years, so it's nice when they have some outside help to help them along that process. Understandably, they are anxious. We reassure them and explain the process.
How does what you do make an impact?
I try not to involve DFS because they have a high caseload, so I do everything I can to support them in the background. I gather all the necessary components, put together the application, send that off to Social Security, and then handle any issues. I am a one-stop shop, so DFS doesn't have to get involved. Social Security knows they can come to me with any problems, so we can keep the benefits going with minimal disruptions.
Clients who come in with mental health issues or disabilities might have difficulty advocating for themselves. We step in and contact their doctors or therapists and gather the information they need on their behalf. When their Social Security applications are submitted, we are always hopeful for approvals, but we are also there to support clients with appeals and represent them before a social security judge.
Has there been a particular moment that stands out to you lately?
I had a recent case with a girl who has been in foster care for years. There was an issue that took a very long time to resolve with Social Security. Thankfully, it was cleared up right around her 18th birthday as she was preparing to leave foster care. Her worker emailed me as they were working on her transition plan, and it was very rewarding to report that she would be leaving care with her benefits and insurance intact, as well as with a check for $10,000 that she would be able to use to secure housing and furniture.
In situations like this, I try to reach out to workers to ensure there are adults looking out for children and there's a plan in place so the child doesn't leave care, get the check and spend the money immediately. It is rewarding after following a case for years to know that we are able to make a direct impact on their lives.
That seems like a really rewarding job but a tough one too. How do you handle stress? What do you do outside of work?
It is hard. You must protect yourself and ensure you're taking care of yourself outside of work. Some of the stories we come across are very hard to read.
I love spending time with my family and my friends. I try to travel often, and I actually have a trip coming up at the end of this month. I'm going to London and Portugal.
I recently got into weightlifting. I'm a person who never even went to the gym. It's really challenging. I try to get outside in nature and take walks and go hiking. That's how I try to decompress, and it's been working.