Leading with Heart: How a Social Work Degree Shapes Leadership at Grafton

Amidst the boardrooms, strategic planning sessions, and the day-to-day operations of Grafton, echoes of social work principles and skills resonate through Kent Houchins, Chief Operating Officer of Community-Based Program. Houchins’ journey from his first job out of college as a direct support professional, to working as a therapist, to his current position on the executive team, showcases the importance of social work and how the value of this profession transcends titles at Grafton.

Growing up with a mother who worked as a nurse and was a natural caretaker, instilled something in Houchins at an early age. Voted ‘Most Friendly’ in high school, he was someone everyone could talk to, who was easily approachable, and wanted to help as many people as possible. Originally, Houchins wanted to pursue psychology – earning his undergraduate degree from Ball State University – and become a psychologist. However, Houchins realized more years of additional testing and measurements were not in the cards.  

“My first job out of college, with my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, was as a DSP [direct support professional] at a group home,” he said. “So that’s where I started and immediately fell in love with that community-based passion.”

During his time in this position, Houchins helped plan activities for the group home and remained active with the clients, even poking fun at his fellow graduates who were already feeling the strain of their first jobs out of college. “It was a great job. I made fun of my friends when they said their work was so hard. I said, ‘Well today I got paid to go to church. Today I got paid to go fishing. Today I got paid to go to the movies, or I got paid to go out to eat.’”

It was this job that helped Houchins fall in love with social work, and he knew this was his path going forward. While working as a DSP, he went back to school to get his Master’s Degree in Social Work, enrolling in the two year part-time program at IUPUI [Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis], while working full-time. Houchins also served as a behavioral specialist during this time, helping to develop behavior plans for adults and transition them from a facility-based program to a group home in the community.

Houchins found himself moving from working in the field, in the group homes, to becoming a manager of an outpatient mental health clinic, and then eventually the Division Director, overseeing facilities in seven different counties in Indiana. Though he held a special place in his heart for social work, Houchins admitted to struggling early on with his transition into a leadership role.

“I struggled a lot in social work when I became the manager of the mental health clinic and then the Division Director because really all of my direct client contacts greatly decreased and I had to reframe that as I’m still helping people,” he said. “I’m actually helping more people. I’m just not the one directly helping and I always kind of saw it as my job and I still do today. As a leader, or a supervisor, or a boss, or whatever your title is, your job needs to be to give the people the tools and resources they need to support others; and if you’re still able to do that, then you’re still getting the value out of your degree.”

After obtaining his master’s degree and taking on more leadership roles, Houchins went back to school to get his second master’s degree, but this time in Business Administration. Many people asked him why a Master’s in Business Administration was needed in the field of Social Work. To Houchins, it was simple. “It’s not how can we make all this money or make more money, it’s how can we utilize the resources we have to be able to support those we serve best.”

After serving as the Clinical Director for a regional youth village in Indiana for almost three years, Houchins found himself at Grafton and has been in his role for over a decade. Houchins immediately found Grafton to be a ‘family environment.’ It wasn’t how the group homes, the clinical departments, and the education departments operated independently, but how they operated as a unit to provide the best possible care for the clients.

“I really had the feeling in Grafton that people were here for the right reasons, and for me, that’s what social work is all about. It’s what your passion is, it’s what your heart wants to do, and you’re able to see those successes and work in some high functioning teams and work together in teams to get the best outcomes for your clients,” he said.

Houchins, along with other members of the executive team, have been working together to infuse more clinical principles and clinical models into other departments at Grafton.The team hopes it will provide even more success for the clients, ultimately helping them return to their home schools and their home communities.

“I think it leads to the increased outcomes for those that we serve,” he said. “It definitely will increase their functional autonomy and have them more capable of doing things for themselves and getting satisfaction for doing things themselves, versus others just doing things for them.”

The direct impact of the social workers at Grafton is seen through individualized behavior plans, therapy, and the analysis of behavior data, Houchins explained. He further explained, on a broader scale, social workers help to coordinate care and provide instrumental instruction on transitioning clients from Grafton back into the community, equipping them with the skills and knowledge to succeed as independently as possible.

Kent Houchins spending time with some of our incredible clients!

“With the population that Grafton serves, success comes in small, incremental doses,” Houchins said. “I think it’s important, as a social worker, to realize that at any given moment, any given day, you can make an impact on an individual’s life and that can be negative or positive. You always have to try to make sure you’re making a positive impact on somebody.”

One of Houchins’ impacts came when he worked out of Grafton’s Berryville campus. One of the clients came into his office and noticed a picture of his daughter sitting on the desk. He said they talked about his daughter, such as her name and how old she was.

“Then she looked at me and said, ‘I wish you had been my dad,’ Houchins recalled. “I said, ‘Why is that’ and she said, ‘Well I wouldn’t be at a place like Grafton. I’d be at home with you.’ And I just started crying. I just lost it.”

Houchins takes that impact and his experience in social work into his current role and is confident it helps him excel and make the best decisions for Grafton. “My background in social work has allowed me to see the big picture on not only helping individuals but also realizing that helping organizations and employees…helping them grow and flourish, makes it 10 times more impactful for the people we serve and our employees.”

Houchins’ diverse background, from his time as a DSP to his current role as a Chief Operating Officer, is proving to help Grafton be a catalyst of change. “I feel like the social workers at Grafton take a lot of pride in their job,” Houchins said. It is clear that he is not only proud of the social workers at Grafton for their dedication to the clients, but his own commitment to serving others shines through and lies at the heart of every decision he makes for Grafton.