When life threw him a curveball, this social worker hit it out of the park

Johnny Polanco never expected career in social work

Kissimmee, Fl – It takes a special person to work with families in crisis, and coworkers say this week’s Getting Results Award winner is one of the best.

When life threw Johnny Polanco a curveball, he hit it and embraced the profession that needed him.

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For the past 15 years, Polanco has served as a front-line responder for children and families who arrive at the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) in Osceola County due to suspected physical or sexual abuse.

As the Lead Child Advocate, Polanco helps victims of sexual abuse, and their families, connect to the resources they desperately need, and he assists with helping them find a safe place to heal.

“After 15 years of doing this, you think you’ve heard it all,” Polanco said. “But there’s always something that throws you back. It’s like, ‘Wow, how can somebody hurt a child?’”

Each day, Polanco strives to motivate the children he serves, reminding them that they can overcome adversity if they keep a positive attitude -- something he knows first-hand.

The Dominican Republic native was a freshman playing baseball at the University of Rhode Island when he suffered a game-changing injury. His arm snapped in three places while throwing a curveball, effectively ending his career before it even really had the chance to start.

“Being born in the D.R., that’s every kids’ dream -- to make it to the big leagues,” Polanco said. “Career baseball was done. So now you start to think about what you’ll actually do for the rest of your life.”

Instead of accepting defeat, he got the opportunity to coach for the same Little League where he learned to play. He also graduated with a degree in Human Science and Services.

“I realized I wanted to give back and give back in my community,” Polanco said. “I’m proud of the person I’ve become. Never in a million years did I think this would be my career.”

Polanco started his social services career in Rhode Island and eventually relocated to Central Florida.

The Children’s Advocacy Center Osceola is part of Embrace Families, the lead nonprofit agency overseeing child welfare and other family services in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

The CAC Osceola handles about 400 cases a year. Polanco helps families access victims of crime assistance, connects them to therapy and also provides resources for housing and basic needs.

Through it all, Polanco’s love for the sport he grew up playing has never waned. He spends weekends traveling the state to play in a number of softball leagues.

“I love this game,” Polanco said as he waited in the bleachers at the Southwest Sports Complex in Lakeland. “As long as it’s not raining, we’re out here playing.”

The game provides an outlet and escape from his Monday through Friday office job. “I tell these guys, ‘Let’s have some fun here.’ Nobody’s gonna come from the Red Sox or the Yankees saying, ‘We need you.’ This is about living. Living the rest of your life the best you can.”

Polanco says he relies on some of the skills he developed as a baseball player in his position as an advocate. He says confidence and patience are key.

“To be a good first baseman, you can’t be scared.” Polanco said comparing the two. “You have to analyze the situation. You have to care and you have to have a good heart. These families are relying on you to guide them.”

Joy Chuba, executive director at the CAC Osceola, said of Chuba, “He is just amazing at engaging with families and providing support and acceptance to help them get results and heal from traumatic experiences He goes above and beyond regularly.”

Chuba said families have come back years later to thank Polanco and express their gratitude.

“He takes calls from families years down the line,” Chuba said. “He’s just an amazing advocate for children and families.”

Polanco is this week’s Getting Results Award winner.

“This type of work, you’re not looking for recognition. We’re looking to help families,” Polanco said. “But it feels good, every so often, to be recognized for what you do.”

Polanco also serves on the Osceola County Domestic Violence Task Force and Child Abuse Prevention Task Force.

“This is what I was chosen to do,” Polanco said. “God had other plans for me in life. Those plans were to help kids who are vulnerable. I’m proud of what I do.”

About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.