By Joel Hall
Puerto Rico-native, Maria Vargas, spoke very little English when she first came to work for the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) six-and-a-half years ago. On Wednesday, she was honored by the agency as being its most valuable, dynamic, and inspiring worker.
Vargas, a client screener for DFACS, was selected as the agency's Employee of the Year during a special ceremony at DFACS headquarters in Jonesboro. The former Army wife and homemaker was selected by her peers and approved by the DFACS Board of Directors as having made the biggest impact on the organization in 2009.
DFACS Board Chairman Tom Mertl said Vargas was chosen from a pool of 12 Employee of the Month winners, one for each month of last year. Mertl said that Vargas "takes a personal approach to every case."
"Since 1992, we have been recognizing an employee who has made a deep impact on our agency," Mertl said. "It is a combination of peer approval and interviews that we conduct." He said Vargas is a "team player," "super reliable," and "fun to work with."
Regional DFACS Director Cathy Ratti said, due to the recession, the number of new people applying for federal benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid, has increased dramatically. She said that as a bilingual screener, Vargas has served as the "front door" of the agency.
"It's been a tough year with all the furloughs and increased work loads," Ratti said. In addition, "that side of the office has seen a huge increase [in the number of people applying for benefits]. When most people come here, they are already down and embarrassed. You have to be a person who can interact with all types of people. With Maria, you can't help but see her energy. She is definitely a good fit to be the face they see when they come here."
As Employee of the Year, Vargas was awarded a one-night stay at the Country Inns and Suites in Morrow, a Macy's gift card, a Red Lobster gift card, a leather, day planner, a one-year paid membership to the Georgia County Welfare Association, a year-long premium parking space at the DFACS headquarters, and several other prizes.
Vargas, a military wife for nearly 20 years prior to coming to DFACS, said she began her first full-time job when she started working for the agency in 2003. She said she was attracted to the job because it afforded her the opportunity to help people.
"Sometimes, when people come over here, nobody has ever hugged them, nobody has listened, and nobody has cared," Vargas said. "When I see somebody who is applying for food stamps, I see my family. If my mom goes to DFACS in Puerto Rico, I would want them to treat her right. I would want them to treat my family right. I try to motivate everybody around me."
DFACS Supervisor Debbie Gardner said Vargas goes "beyond the call of duty" for English-and Spanish-speaking customers, often directing them to additional resources offered outside of DFACS.
"Maria is very giving of her time," Gardner said. "She has also given other help, such as locating housing, informing customers of different resources out there that they usually don't know [about]. For someone who is not English-speaking, she is very patient with them and makes sure their application is correct, so they can get all of their entitlements."
Vargas said she has used her language skills as an asset, and her experiences to motivate her clients and co-workers.
"You count for two when you are bilingual," Vargas said. "It means you are going to help more people. We don't get paid a lot, but with something like this, you don't need money to be happy."