After a year of leadership at Children’s Home Society of Washington Key Peninsula Family Resource Center, program manager and KP native Gina Cabiddu looks back on her past and ahead to new opportunities in 2020.
Gina Cabiddu’s passion for social work is driven by her own experiences in the foster care system. After being separated from her biological family by Child Protective Services at age 3, she spent the next seven years in various foster homes, including on the Key Peninsula.
Now she manages a KP resource center to help families and children like her.
“I remember a lot of moving around, not knowing where I was going to be the next day,” Cabiddu said. The constant transitions made it difficult for her to find stability. “It took a lot of adaptation: getting used to different people’s cooking, remembering where the bathroom was when I got up in the middle of the night. It was a lot of driving, and a lot of strangers.”
After seven years of uncertainty, she was adopted at age 10 by Monika Cabiddu, a woman she had bonded with during earlier rounds of foster care. “When no one else would take me, I kept insisting to be put back into her care. Thankfully, my social worker listened to me and put me back with Monika,” Cabiddu said.
The adoption marked a shift from a life of constant change to one of consistency and support. “I knew what the rules were, I knew what the boundaries were and those did not change. And the other piece was that no matter how much I pushed those boundaries, she was always there, and she always said that she loved me.”
Cabiddu’s tumultuous upbringing was a topic she made a deliberate effort to be open about with others in her peer group and family.
“It was never a secret, it was never a shame, it was always a very open conversation in the family I was raised in. It’s just my norm, there were other youths who grew up in happy, stable homes, so they couldn’t relate, and that was OK to me because I couldn’t really relate to what they had experienced.”
Despite Cabiddu’s early acceptance, the process of integrating into a new family was not free of friction. “I did have members of that adopted family that would point out, even after I was adopted, that I wasn’t one of them, that I didn’t belong by blood, that I was just a member by ink. Then there were others that just said, no, this is my sister, and this is who she is.”
Cabiddu said her time in the foster care system and her experience with community support programs inspired her to pursue a career of her own in social services. Early memories of caring CPS workers touched her, and she remembers their gestures of kindness.
On days requiring lots of travel by a car, she said, “one of my social workers would let me choose which country CD we were going to listen to that day. Just having that small amount of choice, when everything else in my life was out of my control, was so important to me. I carry that forward with me today, as I try to think of those little details.”
Cabiddu’s dreams of helping others were supported by her adoptive family.
“They were always adamant that I could be whatever I wanted to be,” she said. Always a good student, she continued to excel with an eye on the future. “I knew even from an early age that I needed to get into a four-year degree program for social work, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so it was going to take good grades to get scholarships.”
She credits teachers and staff in schools from Evergreen Elementary to Peninsula High with nurturing her interest in the field, and local organizations for supporting her dream through scholarships.
“My schools had several staff who made me feel special, important, and that I was going to go change the world,” Cabiddu said. “If I didn’t have those resources from the community, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”
One of the most memorable local contributions was a $1,000 scholarship from the Longbranch Improvement Club. When Cabiddu returned to the KP, she made a point to contact the LIC to report on her success and her new role. Cabiddu said the lesson is simply that “when you invest in our kids here, they will go out to do great things, but they’ll also come and pay it back to the community.”
Cabiddu enrolled in the Running Start program for her last two years of high school, studying at Olympic College in Bremerton before transferring to UW Tacoma. Pursuing her degree at UWT included training in law, ethics and communication, as well as gaining field experience through internships and job shadowing.
During her education, Cabiddu found herself constantly exposed to new points of view that helped her develop a deeper view of social work.
“At Peninsula High School we were bringing all the middle schools together into one community, and you had to learn about different experiences,” she said. “Going to Olympic College, I got exposed to new ways of thinking, new values, and then when I went to Tacoma it was the same thing. Having that exposure helped me to consider different perspectives I never would have otherwise.”
Cabiddu graduated from UWT with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2015 and earned her master’s in the same field in 2017. As part of her graduate work, Cabiddu spent time working for CPS as an investigator before interning with Jud Morris, who directed the program at CHSW Key Peninsula Family Resource Center. Working with Morris offered her the chance to expand her knowledge of the connections that support social work in a small community.
“I didn’t understand the importance of those political relationships, I didn’t know about grant writing,” she said. “I didn’t understand the importance of going to board meetings or coalitions. We don’t have to take everything on by ourselves.”
Cabiddu supervises the CHSW KP Family Resource Center after taking over from the retiring Morris in January of 2019. Many of the programs Cabiddu and her family benefited from in her youth are now partners in her work, giving her a unique understanding of their importance.
“My family didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so we needed those resources, we needed that support,” she said. “I definitely have a chip on my shoulder, after growing up on the Key Peninsula, that our needs need to be recognized. And we do need to be advocated for.”
Although social work can be emotionally and physically draining, Cabiddu is careful to set aside time for recovery and relaxation.
“If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re going to burn out, and you’re not going to be able to do the work,” she said. “You’re going to lose that compassion, that drive for service.”
Cabiddu’s own commitment has remained strong, and she continues to draw strength from the daily impact of her work.
“Even on my hardest days, when I just want to throw my hands up, I get to walk away knowing that I and my staff have made a difference in someone’s life. Every day I’m fulfilled by the fact that we really do make people’s lives better.”