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Becker County Human Services director loves being 'closer to home'

Like so many young women, Nancy Nelson's first career was as a wife and mother.

"I married young, and started raising a family," she said. "It was never my intention to go into social work."

It was a college guidance counselor who suggested social services might be a career field Nelson would want to look into. She decided to heed the advice -- and never looked back.

On June 1, Nelson became the director of Becker County Human Services, replacing Matt Casey.

Her life and career have taken many twists and turns in the intervening years. Now living in Lake Park with her (second) husband, Dan Schmoll, Nelson has a blended family that includes two of her own children, and five of Dan's -- not to mention seven grandchildren.

"Spending time with our grandchildren is my favorite pastime," she said. Though "none of them live close by," their pictures adorn the shelves in Nelson's new Detroit Lakes office. "I have a few more to put up," she added.

Nelson is also loving her new job. Though her seven years with Norman County Social Services -- including five as its director -- were very enjoyable, the long commute from her home in Lake Park is something she won't miss at all.

"When you live in one community, and work elsewhere, you lose something," Nelson said, referring to the hours she spent on the road, traveling between Lake Park and Ada. Now, her commute can be measured in minutes instead of hours -- and she's very happy to be spending less time on the road this winter.

But the shorter commute was not Nelson's only reason for pursuing the job with Becker County, after learning of Matt Casey's planned retirement in May. She looks forward to the challenge of heading a "much bigger" agency.

Currently, she and the county's human services staff are engaged in the process of "trying to get used to each other."

"Matt was here for a number of years, and my style of leadership is different from his," Nelson explained. "The staff is still kind of feeling out what I want, and I'm trying to figure out how things work."

She also hopes to continue her involvement with health and human services issues on the state and federal level.

"I love politics, and being involved in health and human services issues statewide," she said. "This year, I'm the first vice president of MACSSA (Minne-sota Association of County Social Service Administrators)... I'm very involved in state and federal legislation, and determining how it affects the people locally. I love that part of it (being a human services director).

"It's not so much about drafting (human services) policy, it's about interpreting how that policy will affect the constituents of the county, and what steps this agency needs to take so it (the policy) will serve the constituents well. Not all legislation does that."

When she looks back on her career, Nelson is grateful that she chose the path she did. She didn't really have a definite major in mind when she returned to school to pursue her bachelor's degree.

"Human resources was one field I was researching, as well as nursing," Nelson said. But after taking a few tests to determine where her aptitude and interests lay, her counselor at Moorhead State (now Minnesota State) University suggested that she might want to give social work a try. So she did.

"It was a very good fit for me," Nelson added. After receiving her bachelor's degree in social work from MSU, she began her career as a social worker with Becker County Human Services. She worked in the family services division from 1989-95, before joining Lutheran Social Services as an in-home counselor.

While she was with LSS, Nelson began pursuing her master's degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, via "distance learning" classes on interactive television (ITV) as well as commuting to the Twin Cities for a few courses. In 1998, she went to work for Norman County as a social worker. Two years later, she was promoted to the director's position. Though she said she "loved working there," Nelson has no regrets about her decision to leave.

"Becker County has been very, very good to me," she said. "I really appreciate what this county has to offer, and I hope to give back some of what they've given to me."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454