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Judith Bertacchi’s career of working with and for children and families is almost as long as Erikson’s — and it’s closely entwined with the Institute, too.
It all started one Wednesday afternoon in 1968 when she was at home listening to “The Midnight Special” on the radio while ironing. “An ad came on WFMT that said something like, ‘Would you like to learn about child development in a stimulating environment?’” she recalls. She immediately called the number given, had her admission interview over the phone on the spot, enrolled at Erikson, and the rest, as they say, is history.
She turned her Erikson internship at Virginia Frank Child Development Center into a full-time job after graduation. There, she expanded an intensive therapeutic nursery school program aimed at preventing developmental delays that is still flourishing today. “Through the years there I just kept developing new programs, new partnerships, and new connections. I always said, about both Erikson and Virginia Frank, I never left after a day at either place without learning something. For me that was wonderful.”
One of the things she learned was the value of combining social workers’ skills with child development theory. “We found we were getting children at 3, 4, and 5 with serious problems already. Then our whole notion of prevention changed; we were really getting involved in relationships to support mothers. We used an interdisciplinary approach with social work and early education staff working together as teams. I found that was a winning combination. Every time I saw [former dean] Fran Stott I lobbied her to put together a program to provide that kind of training,” Bertacchi recalls. She was thrilled when the nagging paid off in the launch of a dual M.S./M.S.W. degree with Loyola in 2001.
Meanwhile, she taught both at Erikson and at the Institute for Clinical Social Work. With Stott, she led a long-running seminar for directors of early childhood programs throughout Chicago, providing a forum for discussion and informal professional development. Along the way, she was part of an effort to pull together a discussion group that drew together every organization doing research in child development. That led to the formation of the Illinois Association for Infant Mental Health around 1981; Bertacchi was the second president of the group.
In the late 1990s, Bertacchi left Virginia Frank Institute for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, where she applied her knowledge to helping families struggling in poverty. Eventually she was named vice president for direct service programs. Much of her work was with staff “to help them understand that they are critical people in the lives of the children and families; they are agents of change.”
Bertacchi has provided consultation for many organizations, particularly in the area of reflective supervision. She has shared her wisdom and experience with the Ounce of Prevention’s Educare Center and Bounce Learning Network, Erikson’s Department of Child and Family Services integrated assessment project, the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, Southwest Human Development, and more. Somehow, she found time to serve as an Erikson trustee from 1991 to 2003.
As a teacher, trainer, consultant, and collaborator, Bertacchi has enhanced the knowledge and skills of countless early childhood professionals. Many of them turned out to honor her outstanding contributions to the field when she received the 2008 Founders Award at the Alumni of Erikson Institute annual meeting Nov. 21. Marsha Hawley, ’89, AEI second vice president, presented the award, as friends, colleagues and former classmates shared their stories and appreciation of her work.
Bertacchi looks back with wonder at her career. “The truth is I loved every one of my roles. For me the treat was providing people with developmental theory. It’s such elegant theory. With this theory, you can understand the importance of the early years of a person’s history. Then things start to make more sense.” Still actively consulting after 35 years, she treasures her experiences. “Over the years, I came in touch with so many big and wonderful ideas. I met incredibly wonderful, innovative and creative, people, and that all started with Erikson.”