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Sheward wraps up 35-year career at Prairie Manor

Dawn Sheward, prairie manor, retirement, katie keck
Dawn Sheward, left, has been a social worker at Prairie Manor for 35 years. She is retiring June 27 and will pass the torch to Katie Keck, right. Sheward was the first social worker the facility ever hired. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

Dawn Sheward’s 35-year career of care began not when she realized what she loved, but what she hated.

“When I started college, I was going to go into accounting,” she said. “I did terrible, and I hated it. So I talked to a friend, told her I liked helping people – and then changed my major.”

A CPA office’s loss was Prairie Manor’s gain: Sheward was hired by the Blooming Prairie care facility in 1989 as its first-ever licensed social worker.

On Thursday, she’ll retire from the only job she’s ever had, a job she’d never considered.

“Because of my disability, I wasn’t sure what I would be physically able to do,” said Sheward, who uses a wheelchair. “In my head, I was thinking office-type work. I didn’t really know much about social work at the time.”

She was raised on a farm in Prinsburg, near Willmar. The church she grew up in supported Dordt College, a small Christian university in Sioux Center, Iowa.

It’s where Sheward headed after high school – and where she found her calling.

Degree in hand, she looked for a job close to home.

“I couldn’t find anything, so I got a vocational rehab counselor to kind of expand my search,” Sheward said. “There was a newspaper ad – she circled it and said, ‘What do you think of this?’”

Prairie Manor was seeking a social worker.

“I had a college friend that was in Hollandale, and I thought, ‘at least I’ll know somebody.’ So I lived in Hollandale for 12 years” after accepting the job in Blooming Prairie, she said.

Because it was a new position for the facility, Sheward was tasked with designing the role – one she was just learning herself.

“It took a little while,” she said of the adjustment. “I knew it was the right occupation,” but it was daunting.

She became adept at combining compassionate client care with state and federal rules and regulations, said Katie Keck, a licensed social worker who has worked with Sheward for two years.

“She is very intelligent, very thoughtful, and processes through questions in a way that I want to when I’ve been in a job for 35 years,” she said of her mentor. “She’ll give perspective that I haven’t even thought of; she knows her stuff.”

Seeing the big picture is their job, Keck said, “but we still have compassion for what the resident is going through. Sometimes we have to break hard news to them, some of those bigger, harder things about what the next step is. You always meet your client where they’re at, and that can be challenging.”

Creating policies is also part of the job.

“How you word policy is – and I know policy is kind of boring,” Keck said, “but when we need to create new ones, she can word them so they’re specific, yet still general,” making them useful for many situations.

As licensed social workers, they are involved with referrals for people who are looking for a place to stay, typically to recover from an illness or injury.

“Most of the time, they’re coming from a hospital,” Sheward said. “We try to coordinate that with, ‘Can we meet their needs? Do we have a place for them?’ Once they get here, we help them adjust to being here.”

Many of them will return to their homes.

“For the others,” she said, “it’s just nice to try to make it the best experience you can for them.”

Sometimes, just seeing her is enough.

“Part of it, I believe, is being in a wheelchair,” Sheward said. “I can kind of relate to some of the disabilities and struggles that they have. I feel it’s kind of an instant connection – ‘Oh, you’ve gone through some things, too.’

“Every single person has a story, and has things they’ve gone through,” she said, “but mine is kind of right out there for you to see.”

Sheward will stay on as a consultant for the facility.

“Things I do question, I can email or call her,” Keck said.

“It’s really hard not to have somebody to bounce ideas off of,” Sheward agreed.

She has prepared Keck for working alone, though.

“I’ve been very part-time,” Sheward said. “I used to work four days a week and have gradually backed off to one day a week.”

Much like everything else, long-term care has changed significantly over the past few decades.

“We used to have 82 residents,” Sheward said. “Now we have 36, and the regulations and requirements (about care) have just skyrocketed.”

Years ago, the residents were more independent; today, they often have medically complex situations.

That means reams of paperwork to complete.

Paperwork and policies aside, Sheward said her last day at the facility will be difficult.

The best part of her job is “definitely getting to know the residents and their families,” she said. “When you don’t have to do the paperwork, and you can just visit with the residents, that’s the best part.”

Her coworkers, past and present, have also been vital to her success. Sheward singled out Heidi Thompson, who she worked with for about 30 years.

As her career comes to a close, Sheward has no plans to leave Blooming Prairie. She moved to town in 2001, after her marriage to Chris Sheward.

As big Timberwolves fans, they may be able to take in a few more games, she said.

So what has made her a good social worker – nearly 40 years after deciding to become an accountant?

“My faith in God is very important to me,” Sheward said. “He’s put it in my heart to help people, and he brought me here. He influenced me through wonderful parents, the rest of my family, the different communities … and through the special friends and caregivers he’s given me.

“I want people to know that even though life can be difficult, you can overcome many challenges.”

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