Friends and Family

Two longtime friends combine forces to create a social work practice

For Rachelle “Shelly” Hutchinson and Vanessa Robinson-Dooley, it was only a matter of time before their personal and professional lives intertwined. The two met at the University of Georgia, where they took most of their classes together. At the time, Hutchinson was working for the Department of Family and Children Services in the Child Protective Services Department and Robinson-Dooley spent long hours running her own consulting firm catering to social service and nonprofit agencies.

In 2002, the Atlanta-based social workers joined forces to create the Social Empowerment Center, a multifaceted organization that provides a wealth of services, including child and family assessments, in-home family therapy, and cultural diversity training for private organizations and for Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services Department of Juvenile Justice.

Still, the path to success wasn’t an easy one. The women knew they had chosen a particularly competitive field, one where finding qualified, experienced employees would be just as challenging as bringing in stable income. Robinson-Dooley, who has a doctorate in social work, and Hutchinson, who has a master’s in social work, made sure to find professional, well-educated staffers to represent their growing company, including students working toward their doctorate.

After billing just $2,000 the first year, the partners realized that the best way to grow was through word of mouth. And it grew–fast. Currently, the center is listed as an approved Comprehensive Child and Family Assessment/Wrap-Around Provider for the state of Georgia. The exposure on the state’s Website has given the company an exceptional boost in profits and reputation. Last year the organization grossed $250,000 and is on track to bring in $350,000 this year.

Hutchinson and Robinson-Dooley chalk up their success to a willingness to cater to their clients’ specific needs. “We have provided supportive services to our well-established clients when their staff is overwhelmed,” says Hutchinson.

“There are about five counties that we are billing on a monthly basis,” Hutchinson explains. “The state doesn’t really have the time to complete family assessments, to see why the child is in foster care, what the family history is, what resources the family has, if they should just jump toward adoption, etc.” In this niche, the longtime friends have found a formula that works.

Hutchinson, a New Orleans native, emphasizes the desire to keep the organization home-based to allow staff members to spend ample time at home with their families. Both women are married with young children. “We were looking for something where we could use the skills and education that we had, but we also didn’t want a traditional nine-to-five job either,” says Hutchinson. “It was completely workable from home, and we made it so that the people who work for us can do the same.” However, the duo maintains an office in Lilburn, Georgia, for meetings and central visits.

These days, Hutchinson, 36, and Robinson-Dooley, 38, can add a new title to their relationship: first friends, then co-workers, and now neighbors. The two women live around the corner from each other in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Social Empowerment Center, Lilburn, GA 30047;
770-925-2095;

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