An interview with Celeste Harris from the Houston Area Parkinson Society: A Social Worker’s Purpose on November, 2023 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.
Celeste Harris, LMSW
Director of Social Services
Houston Area Parkinson Society
I’m from a small town in South Texas (Brownsville), came to Houston for university and never wanted to leave. I knew I wanted to be in a “helping” profession, but it wasn’t until I discovered the profession of social work and the myriad of ways that social workers aid the community that I found my vocation.
Can you tell me more about your organization?
Houston Area Parkinson Society is an independent, regional non-profit with a focus on Parkinson’s disease social services. Our purpose – “We exist to ensure that no one faces a Parkinson’s diagnosis alone.” – is reflected in our work. Enrichment, education, exercise, support, social services: HAPS is here to support the Parkinson’s community in Houston and surrounding areas in any way.
HOUSTON AREA PARKINSON SOCIETY
Mission: By using a whole-human approach to community building, we reduce the fear and isolation associated with a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Purpose: We exist to ensure that no one faces a Parkinson’s diagnosis alone.
What is your passion and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure?
I am a social worker who stumbled upon the Parkinson’s community while in graduate school, where I received my MSW. After being placed with Houston Area Parkinson Society (HAPS) in 2005 for my first internship, I felt strongly that Parkinson’s disease work was my calling. Thankfully, HAPS agreed! I’ve been with HAPS since 2006, when I received my license and was officially a LMSW.
What type of goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when working with you?
I work with individuals with PD, their caregivers/partners, spouses, and extended support systems to provide not just information and referral, but everything from book clubs to case management. Essentially, I am hoping to encourage all in the Parkinson’s community – not just those diagnosed but their friends and family – to find their niche and be an active part of our society.
What type of training and how long are the programs?
HAPS offers something for everyone. We have prerecorded, Parkinson’s-specific exercise videos on our YouTube channel that range from 10-20 minutes long, virtual exercise and support groups that are roughly an hour; in-person exercise programs (all kinds of disciplines, from yoga to boxing to dance) that are an hour; and support groups for different audiences that can be up to 1.5 hours. And that’s to say nothing of our half and full day educational and enrichment programing.
What effect can it have on an individual with Parkinson’s?
The ability to connect with peers should be recognized more! By joining in the Parkinson’s community and participating in Parkinson’s-focused activities, I see individuals become empowered, educated, and engaged.
What events do you participate in?
HAPS is a small agency with a big reach – with 8 staff and 1 intern, we all participate in nearly everything. I personally case manage individuals with PD, facilitate 10 support groups, manage the HAPS enrichment programs (such as book club and our Women and PD Group), and assist with educational programming, including speaking at our events. We are also a Run for a Reason Charity with the Houston Marathon, which is a huge deal here every January! The Parkinson Policy Forums in Washington, DC have offered many advocacy opportunities I am so glad I was able to participate in; I’m also proud to have attended two World Parkinson Congress, in Kyoto and Barcelona where I presented posters on caregiving.
How does this also assist the caregivers?
Caregivers are the backbone of many PD households. I facilitate 3 support groups specifically for those who are caregivers of those with PD, but also feel strongly that what benefits the person with Parkinson’s benefits their family units.
How can someone get in touch? What is your website?
I can be reached at email@example.com, and the HAPS website is haps.org
How can others also become advocates for awareness?
Just get involved – with anything, anywhere! Join an exercise class. Wear a T-shirt. Email a Congressperson. Tell your friends about how complicated navigating healthcare can be. Advocacy is everywhere, all the time.
In your opinion what is the key to effective advocacy?
Every advocate should passionately believe in their cause – in this case, passionately believe in and for the Parkinson’s community.
Why should people who don’t have Parkinson’s care about this?
Parkinson’s disease is the fastest growing neurological diagnosis in the world. When I started my personal and professional journey here in 2005, I had to explain to just about everyone in my life what PD was. Now, there is a larger consciousness about the disease – because there has to be. We all need to pay attention as diagnosis rates rise.
Have you had any family members or relatives affected by Parkinson’s disease?
No one in my family has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but I’ve established many relationships here and feel as if we are all one big family.
If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson’s community, what would it be?
I would love to one day wake up – and be out of job.