Retiring Ward County Human Service Zone director dedicates 38 years to social work

Retiring director dedicates 38 years to social work

Jill Schramm.MDN Melissa Bliss, director of the Ward County Human Service Zone, stands in a family visitation room in the agency’s office in the Ward County Administration Building Nov. 18. Bliss retires Tuesday.

Her first job in social work was part-time with Ward County Social Services. On Tuesday, exactly 38 years later, Melissa Bliss will complete her last day as director for that same agency, now known as the Ward County Human Service Zone.

As she looks back on seven years as director, Bliss said she is most proud of the staff assembled during that time.

“We built a good team, because that’s important to me. It’s important to them, too,” she said. “I feel good about the people that we have here and the work that we do.”

The human service zone is close to naming a new director. Karen Schultz, administrative officer for the Ward County Human Service Zone, will serve as acting director in the interim.

Bliss was a newly minted social worker with a degree from Minot State University, then Dakota Northwestern University, when she joined Ward County on Dec. 1, 1983.

She became the first worker in a program called Optional Services, now known as Home and Community-Based Services. She assisted seniors and people with disabilities to remain in their homes.

She later moved to a full-time position, helping remove employment barriers and encourage self sufficiency among people receiving assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In 1987, she took a position in the child welfare division, where she spent most of her social work career. She has worked with child protection, foster care and in-home services for high-risk families, becoming a lead worker and later a supervisor.

Helping children is where her heart has been, especially assisting at-risk families.

“My favorite job was working with those families because you get to actually dig in, get to know them, find ways to help them, earn their trust, which is not easy to do,” Bliss said. “I just like people and I think that that has helped.”

Bliss said she was only minimally aware of what social work entailed when she took a high school interest inventory that suggested she consider social work. When a beloved great-aunt divulged that she had always wanted to be a social worker, Bliss decided she would take that path, even though she knew little about the field.

“But it was the right fit for me,” she said. “The best gift that I’ve gotten from this job, honestly, is the fact that we believe in a real strengths-based way of working with people. If you look for people’s strengths, you can find something you can build on, even with people who have some pretty significant issues.

“I’ve met some really amazing clients — some people who have really overcome some pretty significant stuff,” she added.

One of her most heartwarming encounters was a happenstance connection online several years ago with one of her earliest foster-care clients, who wrote of how grateful she was for Bliss at that time in her life.

Bliss’s transition in 2014 from child welfare to directing the department hadn’t been part of her career plan.

“This was never on my radar. Never, ever,” Bliss said. However, after a previous long-time director retired and two others quickly came and went, Bliss was urged by colleagues to apply.

“I remember when they called me after my second interview and said, ‘Well, we would like to offer you the job,’ for just this brief moment I thought, ‘What did I do?’ But I took it,” she said.

Bliss also has held leadership positions in other organizations. She is president of the North Dakota Conference of Social Welfare, which presented her its President’s Award in 2017 for her contributions to the profession. Bliss currently serves on the Northern Plains Children’s Advocacy Center board.

Louis “Mac” McLeod, executive director of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition has known Bliss for many years. Her rise to director and longevity with the agency testifies to her strengths, he said.

“Probably one of the most dedicated individuals I have ever worked with — who really cares about people,” he said.

Ward County Commissioner Shelly Weppler noted Bliss has worked as boots on the ground, listening and working to solve clients’ needs, and has been a team player moving up the ranks to help the county find better, more efficient and effective ways to manage the human service needs of the county.

“Melissa’s strength has been her compassion for people as a whole. This was evident in her concern for clients and in her management of employees. Another strength was Melissa’s ability to bring joy and laughter to the office and meetings. I will miss her laughter and genuine concern for the people in Ward County,” Weppler said.

Among the memories Bliss takes away from her time as director is having accomplished the move of social services from a former building on North Hill to the new Ward County Administration Building.

The state’s gradual absorption of county social services, with the transition to human service zones, is another major undertaking that stands out for her.

The job itself has changed as the community has grown and more residents lack the local roots and family ties that provide social support, Bliss said. Addiction issues particularly are more complex, and it’s forced social workers to find new ways to address the problems they see, she said.

For her personally, though, what’s been most important has been sharing with staff the agency’s values of kindness and respect in working with clients.

“It makes me feel good to see that does happen,” she said. “I’ve worked with some really amazing staff and people in the community. I’ve just been lucky to work with those kinds of people, and also I’m going to miss that.”

Bliss, who turns 61 next month, decided it’s time to juggle fewer balls, maybe even spend some time sitting by the fireplace with a good book. She plans to continue to serve on some boards and expects to stay active with volunteering or other ventures.

“I’m just looking forward to doing what I want to do,” said Bliss, who with her husband, Jeff, has two grown daughters.

“But it’s been a good career. It’s been a real learning experience about life, and it made it a lot easier to handle some things that came my way.”

An open house is scheduled today from 1:30-3:30 p.m. in the human service zone office.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or call 1-800-735-3229. You also can send email suggestions to eogden@minotdailynews.com.)


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