Recognition for St. Maarten’s first social worker: Elaine Gumbs-Vlaun: “Do it with your heart and soul”

POSTED: 03/19/14 10:22 AM

St. Maarten – When Elaine Gumbs-Vlaun started her career as a social worker last century in a male-dominated St. Maarten, she had an encounter with a man who refused to pay child support. When he met his social worker, expecting this to be a man, he gave Gumbs an earful. When the macho islander was done, Gumbs stood up, slammed her fist on the table, stood over the defaulting father and growled: “If the mother of your child does not take you to court, I will.”

It is an iconic moment from the history of social work in St. Maarten, related by Gumbs-Vlaun yesterday shortly after she was honored as the first social worker in St. Maarten during a lunch at the Great Bay Beach Hotel on the occasion of World Social Work Day. That example beat anything Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams or Social Affairs Minister Cornelius de Weever had to say about the subject. They talked the talk, of course, but unlike Gumbs-Vlaun they did not walk the walk all those years ago.

Wescot-Williams labeled the event as an important milestone. “Social work has grown tremendously,” she said, “And social issues in St. Maarten have grown as well.”

The PM said that it is appropriate to appreciate people like Elaine Gumbs-Vlaun. “As I congratulate her, I reflect on how far we have come and I appreciate that people like her were involved in social work.”

Wescot-Williams remembers the early days when Gumbs-Vlaun had the guts to address the situation of elderly women, including married women who sometimes went through abusive situations. “That topic was taboo at the time. Look how far we have come now, also with social issues we prefer not to talk about. There is still a huge task ahead for all of you.”

When the first government took office on 10-10-10, Wescot-Williams said, “One of the glaring urgencies was social development. It was singled out as the utmost priority.” The PM repeated statements she has made before about the place of social development within the concept of sustainable development – one cannot be achieved without the other.

As a true politician, Wescot-Williams brought up the election-year in the context of social work. “If we look at the social issues people are still facing today it is a challenge to celebrate campaigning in grand style. However, today is not about gloom and doom but about what you have achieved, and to give you support and encouragement.”

Social Affairs Minister Cornelius de Weever addressed the gathering that included Governor Drs. Eugène Holiday and Ombudsman Dr. Nilda Arduin, saying that during his 3-year tenure he had focused on social development. He noted that up to yesterday social workers at the ministry were not linked to any global agenda.

“Social workers work tirelessly every day. Their life and their time is not their own. Have we made a difference? Yes. Can we do better? Yes, we can and we will,” the minister said. “Social workers have done their work for years without being recognized, but they all find it satisfying to see the fruit of their labor.”

Together with Prime Minister Wescot-Williams, the minister signed a protocol to endorse the global agenda on social work. I doing so, the government pledged support to the promotion of social and economic equality, human dignity, environmental sustainability and the strengthening of the importance of human relationships.

Both cabinet members then honored Elaine Gumbs-Vlaun, the first social worker St. Maarten ever had. The founder of the government department of social services, a former Island Council member and up to this day a member of the Social Economic Council, the royally decorated eminence rise of social work admitted that she had been a bit suspicious when she was enticed to attend the Social Work Day lunch.

She congratulated all social workers with the event and made clear that there is still work to be done. “Even today there are people who do not know what social work is all about.”

A vibrant Gumbs-Vlaun had an inspiring message for the assembled social workers (and maybe also for the politicians present): “Whatever you do, do it with your heart and soul. This is not just a job. Don’t do it for a check, but show people who you are. And let people judge you by your walk of life.”

Before everyone sat down for lunch, the St. Maarten Social Workers Association was incorporated.


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Comments (1)


  1. Reint Laan says:

    Congratulations! St. Maarten to have somebody like Elaine Vlaun to be your first social worker. I used to be a voluntary secretary of the then Board of Guardianship (1967) that developed into a real professional institution (1970 ?) when ms. Vlaun took over the responsibility for that job. I am happy to read she has not changed one bit about the way she sees that so important work. From the Netherlands, Reint Laan.