Committed to Michigan’s youth: Wayne State alum named Michigan School Social Worker of the Year

Long before she received any awards or accolades, social worker Karen Dunholter has been dedicated to serving students in the Southgate school district.

Dunholter and family with award plaque
Karen Dunholter's family from left: cousin and social worker Michelle Meehan; uncle and godfather William Thees; Karen Dunholter with her MI School Social Workers of the State award; mother Rose Dunholter; and father Dana Dunholter.

“I have had the opportunity to work with students from Pre-K through 12th grade. So, I’ve gotten the unique experience of seeing them grow through the years! It’s so rewarding to see them walk across the graduation stage after working with some of them since elementary school,” said Dunholter, who’s worked there for 25 years.

Recently Dunholter, who earned her Master of Social Work (MSW) from Wayne State University’s School of Social Work in 1998, was recognized for her hard work by the Michigan Association of School Social Workers (MASSW). Dunholter won a School Social Worker of the Year Award for Region A (Monroe, Washtenaw, and Wayne County) for 2021-22. The awards ceremony was held virtually due to the pandemic. Additionally, she received the MASSW “School Social Worker of the Year” award for the State of Michigan 2022.

Karen Dunholter in front of MI State Capitol building
Karen Dunholter at the State Capitol building for recognition by the Michigan State Senate for her School Social Worker of the Year Award.

“I received a phone call from a MASSW state board member. I am aware of so many school social workers across the state of Michigan and within my own region that are doing great things. So, it was shocking to think I had been chosen,” she said.

The awards ceremony was held at the MASSW State Conference last October, with over 400 school social workers from Michigan in attendance.

Dunholter said she thoroughly enjoyed her time at Wayne State. “The MSW program prepared me for my future career. I appreciated the opportunity to explore my areas of interest through my two graduate school internships. I remember Anwar Najor-Durack was a great academic advisor when I was in the program,” she said.

“I love to see our alums being recognized for the work they do, and Karen is doing wonderful work within our K-12 school community. Congratulations to her and a big thank you to her for all her hard work!” said Anwar Najor-Durack, Social Work assistant professor clinical and assistant dean for student affairs.

Dunholter with state reps
From left: Mary Cavanagh, Senate Representative for District 6 Redford, Karen Dunholter, and Darren Camilleri, Senate Representative for District 4 Downriver communities

Dunholter’s areas of expertise include crisis planning and management, programming, and building partnerships and resources.

“I have served and led the district crisis team for 25 years and am often called to assist other districts that have experienced a crisis. I am passionate about school safety and crisis response. This school year I started a school safety task force with several other districts that includes superintendents, school social workers, law enforcement, fire departments, and community partners to work together to keep our schools safe.”

Dunholter also developed and implemented two award-winning school mentoring programs, both of which have received Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) awards, and one which was recognized by former Governor Jennifer Granholm.

“I’ve built partnerships over the years as it ‘takes a village,’ and this is a job that can’t be done alone. This past school year I’ve partnered with our local community health agency to provide more services for students. I’ve also formed a group of high school social workers from Monroe and Wayne County to share programs, resources, and ideas to better serve our students. And I’ve partnered with our local K-9 officers through the years to help build the relationship between law enforcement and our students,” she said.

Dunholter has a new venture, having been newly elected President of the MASSW Region A.

“I’m looking forward to serving as President, as it will allow me to participate in state-level meetings and continue to advocate for our profession.”

The Wayne State University School of Social Work is committed to supporting the more than 10 million students in schools without school social workers through both traditional course offerings and a continuing education refresher course options for those seeking to practice in Michigan schools. The Social Work in Schools course offerings provide those who meet the requirements for temporary approval in Michigan curriculum focused on assessment and intervention skills for interpersonal practice, and integrative theory and practice approaches. For those who do not yet have full approval or would like to return to school social work after a break in the profession, the Social Work Office of Continuing Education offers a School Social Worker Refresher 11.5 CE credit asynchronous online course comprised of 10 modules. Participants are provided with a review and update of school law issues, home-school-community assessment, intervention strategies, school social work practice skills, and the treatment of a variety of children and family-based special needs. For questions about which option is right for you, contact the WSU School of Social Work Temporary Approval Coordinator Karen Weiner at

Author: Laura Hipshire

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