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A go-to source for families and individuals in need: Town Social Worker Alexandra Hakim is eager to assist

Alexandra Hakim wants you to get in touch.

The Shelter Island Town Social Worker, at her post since January, said one of the most prominent qualifications in her profession is to be “a good listener,” a virtue, she said, that comes from her parents’ example.

“They were a trapped couple,” Ms. Hakim said, with humor and affection. “Everyone had to listen to me.”

But lending an ear to people’s concerns and problems in her role as a social worker is no chore. “I’ve always been interested to learn about the lives of others,” she said. “It’s an honor to have someone share their feelings and thoughts with you. And I think when you really listen, you can point out things to the speaker that can change their way of viewing a situation. You can point out their strengths when they only see weakness. I discuss everything with a complete absence of judgment.”

She grew up in Westchester County. “But I’ve been coming to Shelter Island my entire life,” she said. About 20 years ago, her father built a house on Big Ram, and when the COVID pandemic struck, she and her family — husband Christopher Snyder and children James, 6, and Claire, 4 — moved here permanently.

Ms. Hakim noted that many people have a vague — or misinformed — idea of what a social worker does. “Social work’s mission is to assist individuals, families and communities to have control over their own lives and fulfill the goals they set for themselves,” she said.

It is in no way a relationship where social workers “direct our clients,” she added, but a “collaboration” every step of the way. “We walk alongside and support people as they navigate whatever they’re going through, whether it be just daily life, or a crisis,” she said. “This can be in the form of individual or group counseling. It can also be helping residents to discover and secure resources and entitlements they never knew they qualified for. I help residents with housing issues, childcare issues, and food insecurity. If you ask, I will try to assist.  I can meet either in-person or remotely.”

An attorney who has worked in the commercial real estate sector and as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society in New York City, Ms. Hakim is also an assistant adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. Her specialty in the Legal Aid Society, mostly in the Bronx, was in juvenile rights, assessing the needs of foster children and children whose families were under Family Court supervision.

“Many of these children have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care or group settings,” she said. “As both a social worker and then an attorney within this practice, I advocated for my clients wishes.”

Comparing the role of a social worker in a large city with a small town, Ms. Hakim said issues such as mental health and addiction are present everywhere. Another universal social problem, which Ms. Hakim is seeing here, is loneliness, and the problems that condition can bring.

According to a 2021 study by Harvard University, “36% of all Americans — including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children — feel “serious loneliness.” These numbers increased “substantially” with the COVID pandemic, the study says. The researchers have said the “steep costs to loneliness” include “early mortality and a wide array of serious physical and emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, substance abuse, and domestic abuse.”

Ms. Hakim sees loneliness occurring in all ages, but especially among older people on the Island. There are bereavement issues, and Ms. Hakim noted that Islander grief specialist Bonnie Stockwell and retired social worker and Reporter columnist Nancy Green have run in-person bereavement groups on Shelter Island every summer.

“I’d like to see a group all-year-round,” Ms. Hakim said.

But there are older people dealing with problems beyond grief over the loss of a loved one, including a sense of social paralysis from loneliness, she said. Ms. Hakim works closely with the Senior Center — “Some people don’t want to go to a place called ‘Senior’” — which she said was a remarkable resource for Islanders, and often refers people to the Center, and the staff there will return the favor.

Another resource is the Police Department, which she works closely with to resolve family issues that can include spouses and children in danger. “Police officers will respond to a call and often give out my information, saying, ‘Why don’t you get in touch with Alexandra. She can help.’”

Overcoming a reluctance some people have to seek help for themselves is usually achieved by the first encounter with her, Ms. Hakim said. “Some people have a stigma about seeking help,” she added. But upon meeting with her, that stigma vanishes, when they understand it’s a non-judgmental encounter that can achieve positive results.

“Many people have never asked for help,” she said. “It’s their first time.”

Affordable housing is a concern here that Ms. Hakim encounters. She works closely with the Community Housing Board and the effort to convert accessory dwelling units on properties, such as attic spaces and garages, for affordable rents.

Another serious social issue is food insecurity on Shelter Island — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Ms. Hakim is present at the Cobbetts Lane Firehouse for the bi-weekly food truck stop.

Until the pandemic struck in January 2020, 65 Islanders, members of 26 households and families, would take the ferry to Greenport to a free food pantry, some making the trip once a week, but most twice a month.

When the pantry, operated by CAST (Community Action Southold Town), moved to Main Road in Southold from Greenport, the Islanders were shut out of some essentials needed for a healthy diet. It was either plan to get to Southold somehow, and much less frequently, at greater expense, or do without.

The Islanders had gone to CAST in Greenport to supplement their food supplies with fresh vegetables, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and other perishable items that are not available at the pantry located in the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church Hall.

But beginning in March last year, those Islanders combating food insecurity for themselves and their families have been supported by CAST’s van, acting as a mobile food pantry, bringing fresh food. It’s here on the Island twice a month on Mondays, and Ms. Hakim is present to provide information on her services and how to get in touch with her.

Part of her work with those facing food insecurity, as well as other social challenges, is to let people know about the services that they’re entitled to, and how she can help access them, she said.

“I’m here, and I’m eager to assist anyone on a short-term or long-term basis with problems they may have,” Ms. Hakim said.

Asked about her career pivot, from a commercial real estate lawyer to social worker, she said the evolution began when, “I got tired going into a  building and spending 12 hours a day working alone. I decided at a certain point that I wanted to work directly with people, and I wanted to help them with tangible issues,” Ms. Hakim said. “I wanted something more.”

Town Social Worker Alexandra Hakim can be reached by phone or text at 631-566-1203, or by email at [email protected].