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Currents June 2013: Tribute to a Social Work Giant - Dr. Helen Rehr by Elaine Congress, Chair of the
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Tribute to a Social Work Giant - Dr. Helen Rehr

Elaine Congress, DSW, LCSW, Chair of the NASW-NYC Pioneers and Associate Dean and Professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service






 Dr. Helen Rehr

This year the social work profession lost one of our great leaders, Dr. Helen Rehr. Beginning over seventy years ago and continuing until her death earlier this year, Dr. Rehr had a long and illustrious career as a social work practitioner, administrator, researcher, and teacher in health and mental health.

Born in NYC in 1919, Dr. Rehr received her BA from Hunter in1940, her MSW in 1945 and her DSW in 1970 from Columbia University. She worked for over 50 years at Mt. Sinai as Director of Social Work where she created a department that was considered the most outstanding in the nation because of its unparalleled excellence in practice, research, training and education. Dr. Rehr directed the Department through challenging times during which social work departments all over the country were disappearing, but during this period not only did she succeed in increasing the size of the department, but also its impact within Mt. Sinai, in the NYC community, and nationally.

One might ask how she was able to do this. Dr. Rehr was a major advocate for the social work profession, but recognized that advocacy alone was never sufficient. If she wanted to retain or add any new program, she would always prepare a detailed budget to demonstrate that the program would be cost saving for the institution. She was a key observer and used every experience to enhance her practice. Once when she was in an airport, she noticed a Travelers Assistance program and thought this is what we need in health care. When back in New York and at Mt. Sinai she introduced the possibility of a patients assistance program, backing it up with data to show how this would be cost effective for the hospital. Now patient assistance is available in hospitals throughout the nation and around the world.

Dr. Rehr's impact was not only national, but also international. At Mt. Sinai she organized the Visiting Scholars program that annually brought leaders in health care from Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Singapore, and Beijing for six weeks to New York to learn about and share with others information about pressing issues and innovative programs in health and mental health care.

Dr. Rehr has held many important positions at NASW, including the National Center for Social Policy and Practice where she served as the first treasurer. She also was the first recipient of the NASW Foundation Knee-Whitman Lifetime Achievement Award in Health and Mental Health. Because of her outstanding contribution to social work, Dr. Rehr was selected as one of the first NASW Pioneers and served as a member of the national Board of the National SW Pioneer Association . The NASW Pioneers are professional social workers who have been NASW members for 25 or more years and have been selected because of their major innovations in social work practice, teaching, research, administration or policy. More information about the Pioneers can be found at

Dr. Rehr founded and chaired the NYC NASW Pioneers. In this capacity she brought in a number of new NYC Pioneers and organized monthly meetings of Pioneers to address current practice and policy concerns. Always cognizant of the link between research and education, she developed a funded project and served as Co-Principal Investigator with me on a study of the leadership characteristics of Pioneers. Dr. Rehr was always interested in teaching the new generation of social workers and she hoped that the findings from this study, The Dynamics of Leadership: A Study of NYC NASW Pioneers, would be helpful in educating the next generation of social work leaders. As the careful researcher she was, she designed a qualitative research study in which 30 NYC Pioneers were interviewed in terms of their what, why, and how of their productivity. Information sought was not only what each Pioneer had accomplished, but also what obstacles they had encountered, how they dealt with these challenges, and were able to overcome them. Dr. Rehr believed that information from this study might help new professionals begin innovative programs within their organizations. The report,The Dynamics of Change, was shared with members of the NYC NASW Pioneer group and it is hoped that the results of the study can be more widely disseminated. If funding is available, National NASW Pioneers have expressed an interest in conducting a national survey of Pioneers.





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