Fordham GSS alumnus Chris Febles, GSS ‘01, published his debut novel, Richie the Caseworker, on November 22 with Faraxa Publishing.
Set in 1995 Westchester County, NY, Richie the Caseworker chronicles the story of lifetime Yankees fan Richie McGinn, as he accidentally transforms from a pizza delivery boy down on his luck, into a caseworker at a nearby homeless shelter. Meanwhile, his beloved Yankees have not reached the playoffs in 14 years, even with star Don Mattingly on the roster. As Richie navigates his new career, as well as his changing relationship with his brother Pat, he wonders whether or not he and his Yankees team were ever destined for success.
Febles has served as the guidance counselor of Regis High School in Manhattan since 2008. Before joining Regis, he worked as a Wish Coordinator for Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Hudson Valley, and a Case Manager for HELP, USA. Along with his current responsibilities at Regis, Febles also serves as a board member for Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School.
We sat down with Febles to speak about his novel, social work, and, of course, baseball.
You said in another interview that this book is sort of art-imitating-life in some pieces, specifically around the concept of a major workplace change. A lot of people struggle with leaving a job that may not necessarily be fitting their needs. What was it about social work that really made you want to join the profession?
Actually, when I was a little kid, about 11 or 12 years old, I went to Catholic school in Westchester County, and we had a unit in our religion class that mentioned Father Ritter of Covenant House. I paid very close attention to that, and I liked the idea of a priest, or just a person, helping people in need.
I still had dreams at that point of playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. It wasn’t long after that that I realized I have no baseball talent, so that made my path a little clearer. I actually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in politics. I even spent a semester in Washington, D.C. But I also wanted to do community organizing, which I did for a while. Then I found a job at Help U.S.A. in Westchester County as a recreation assistant, kind of like Richie. I was on the job for one whole day when the director of the place said to me, we have a job opening as a caseworker. We know that you’re bilingual, and we know you have a bachelor’s degree. So what do you say?
For me, it was a good opportunity, a chance to learn. What I learned early on is that all the brains in the world can’t really help you with the job; it requires a lot of common sense, a lot of guts, and a lot of hustle.
One thing I’ll say is, go out and learn another language, especially Spanish, if you want to do something in this field. That was a big thing for me.
I’m glad I chose this profession. It’s brought me much closer to my original mission of when I was 12 years old—doing something for people in a way that’s impactful.
Fordham was the most flexible, and the most understanding of my time as a professional. They basically said look, let’s work this around your schedule. I took most of my classes on Saturdays. It was right in line with the notion of cura personalis, care for the whole person. Fordham really made it easy for me to get the degree.
Richie seems pretty lost at the beginning of the story, both in his professional and personal lives. There seems to be a growing community of lost young men searching for answers online in the wrong places, especially through social media and certain figures on social media. Do you see this problem of young men being lost and finding answers in the wrong places as something that’s getting worse? If so, how do we get out in front of that?
I’m on the board of Directors Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School, partially because of my social work experience and partially because of my Jesuit experience. In its work-study model, students work one day a week in a corporate environment, and you are introduced to contacts that you ordinarily would never have had. How often do kids get to work at Goldman Sachs, or JP Morgan Chase, or any of these wonderful corporate offices? And it’s changing lives. It’s a school for underserved students, where 99% of its graduates go on to two and four year colleges. So they’re doing something right. And you can point to two things: the Catholic influence of care for the whole person, and the corporate work-study program.
You have to get out there and get the work done. And again, that’s where I felt Fordham Did such a great job. They really emphasized learning the book stuff, but told us to go out and serve. Go out and do the actual work.
I think it ties into your original question, do I feel that the misdirection of young men is getting worse. Well, it doesn’t seem to be getting better. But I think one thing that these opportunities do —the opportunity to serve, the opportunity to get involved with organizations, and not just serve yourself, but serve others—is keep you from becoming isolated, and I think that’s one thing that social media and a lot of these informational things which are not terribly interactive, do.
By the numbers, the large majority of the social work profession is women. In talking about a book where the protagonist is a male social worker, why do you think there are so few men in social work, and what do you think will get them interested in the profession?
Outreach has got to be the key here. I think far too often people equate social work with volunteerism. But it’s almost like a version of business, especially if you’re in the administration side of social work, doing things like organizing people and creating a mission and delivering on that mission. Our field is a very hands-on career, just like engineering in many ways. You’re not just going in to study the books; you’re going in to use your hands and do the actual thing.
I was curious myself how many administrative positions go to men in the social work field, and the number is a little disproportionate. So not only do I think that more men should get into social work, I think more women should be considered and hired as administrators. I think it’s gotten better, but I think we’re far from that spot.
And hey, if combining sports and social work [in this book]is a way to bring more men into the field, great!
Baseball can be a thankless game, with a lot of rejection. But it’s also made up of miraculous moments. Do you find that of social work, as well?
I was working with young people who didn’t have a place to live. They have their challenges and may not stick around in the program. They may leave in the middle of the night. They may relapse, or do all the things that you’ve been trying to keep them from doing. But it’s going to happen. So you have to get yourself ready for this, and that’s where that toughness comes in.
But you are going to have the occasional wonderful thing happen. In fact, my mom reminded me of a moment that happened years ago. She was buying shoes and she took out her credit card and gave it to the saleswoman, who looked at it and said, Are you related to Christopher Febles? And my mom said, That’s my son. And the woman said, He got me this job, and was very thankful for it. That’s a big moment!
Even in my role as a guidance counselor, I’ll have students come back to me and say, that was important, and that was meaningful. I think we social workers bristle when someone says, Oh, it must be a rewarding job. And then you think back to the long hours that you put in, the screaming matches, the mistakes that you’ve made. I think Richie, at a young age, is experiencing that. You might be mentally ready for that. But are you emotionally ready for it?
Richie The Caseworker was an idea that was generated 15 years ago, and written two years ago during the quarantine. How would the book have been different if you had written it 15 years ago?
Well, I did try to write it about 15 years ago, and they are efforts that will never see the light of day. When I write, I keep things, and I have a scraps file of things that I ended up not using. And for Richie the Caseworker, that file is something like 30,000 words long. It’s a terrible novella all in itself.
It’s trial and error. It’s writing things down, reading it and saying, I’m an idiot, and then moving on and changing it.
Fifteen years ago, I would certainly have a lot less experience and understanding of the squiggly line of success. I learned through personal and professional experience over the last 15 years that things change, and that most people don’t follow that straight line to success that often. It is not only okay, but much more common, for people to have arrived at success through, in some cases, just regular old chance. Richie comes to this job because he delivers a pizza to the place, kind of by accident.
I think sometimes people, but certainly teenagers, see the future and think it’s a little more predictable than it really is. You think, I’ll go to this college and go to this grad school. I’ll do this job. I’ll get married. I’ll have kids, and then I’ll live in this particular place, and I’m going to just do everything straight. There’s that old saying that if you want to make God laugh, make plans.
Don Mattingly is a huge part of this book. Why?
That’s one thing I wanted to convey, and it’s very much on the lower level of things. People have to remember that, in 1995, the Yankees hadn’t been to the playoffs in 14 years, and that’s a long stretch for any team. And they had one player who was considered one of the best in the game, and a real good guy—a hard worker who played almost 1,800 games, and had never been to the postseason.
Those years of struggle and strife of doing the right thing, and finally getting your shot, and it’s not a spoiler to say—look how well he did in that circumstance. And hey, there’s your bridge, your miracle of social work—you wait around long enough, you get your shot and do a hell of a job, and people love it. Go out and watch that video of Mattingly hitting a home run in game two of that division series. I was there for that, what a moment. That was because we all felt that release for the guy doing the right thing the whole time, and coming up with this amazing moment; we all felt we were living it.
Maybe that’s part of a bridge to this idea that you stick around with social work long enough, and things like that will happen.
What is the “getting to the playoffs” of social work?
Let’s put it this way. You work all year toward a goal. My wife, Shirley—to whom this book is dedicated, and my daughter Rosie—told me that someone once said that I wasn’t a very easygoing person, and I kind of took umbrage to that. I said, I thought I was easy going, and she said, Well, you’re a nice guy, but you’re really goal oriented. This book is an example of that; you had a goal, and you do everything you can to go out and do that.
I think, in social work, the goals are not as clearly defined. It’s not like you have a particular campaign and, like baseball, that if you succeed three out of ten times, you’re going to the Hall of Fame. And those things are ongoing every year, even in a school setting: the school year ends, but more students are coming in, and the cycle begins again.
I think what you need to do is make yourself as hard-working as resilient as you can get, so that when the playoffs do show up, you’re ready for it. I’m a big believer in being a team player, and I think that’s one thing that social work does better than nearly any profession out there.
Don Mattingly was the captain of his Yankees team, and also has acted as a manager and in other leadership roles. What makes a good social work leader?
I’d say the characteristics of a social work leader are: flexible, resilient, open to growth, open to ideas, not a believer that he or she can solve it all by themselves. Someone who is willing to bring everybody’s talents to the table, and the real special leader knows how to use those talents in all the right ways.
My supervisors throughout my career have all recognized that I can write pretty clearly. I don’t know where that comes from, but since college I’ve been pretty good at that. I was writing grant proposals, basically a social worker-slash-job-developer. I don’t even know what those roles were. But when it came time to write something, my supervisor would say, can you do this?
But know your capacity. It is often okay to say no, or to ask for a little more time. But I think a good leader does a very good job of observing and assessing the situation, viewing their team and saying, this person is good at that; this person is good at this — let’s plug those people in the right way. I think, often we social workers want to go right to the problem and start offering solutions instead of sitting back and assessing.
Who is your favorite author(s)?
Richard Russo, John Irving, Celeste Ng, Janet Ivanovich. I like a book that is very visual, that flows well, where the characters are not just relatable, but visible—real. I don’t like books that are too subconscious, too dreamy or hard to grasp. Reading is entertainment for me. Reading is inspirational.
I think we have to get back to a time where we love reading again, where reading is fun. Let’s get off of social media and start reading things for fun again.
Babe Ruth, or Mickey Mantle?
Oh, Babe Ruth. He can hit for power, average, and give you a couple of innings. I guess he’s the original Shohei Ohtani. I love the Mick, but I’d probably go with the Babe.
Derek Jeter, or Mariano Rivera?
It’s funny, a colleague of mine is a long-time History teacher here and a big Mets fan. He’ll come by my office every now and then, and he has a thing against Derek Jeter. For some reason, he thinks he’s overrated, and I’m like, OK, he’s number six all-time in hits. I don’t call that overrated. The guy has five World Series rings.
But he makes a very good point, he says, Do they get those championships without Mariano Rivera? I don’t know. That’s a tough one, especially in the 2000 series against the Mets. He closed basically every one of those games, and made it look pretty easy.
Nothing against Derek Jeter, but I think Mariano Rivera was probably more crucial to those big championships.
Old Yankee Stadium, or the new one?
OK, I get this a lot. In my opening chapters of Richie the Caseworker, I describe what it’s like for the guys to go to the bleachers [at the Old Stadium]. That’s a terrible scene, and a horrible seat. The seats were terribly uncomfortable. The views from left field were just awful. You might as well be watching from the 4-train platform. It was so bad.
And the food—what a joke! You might as well have bread and water. And today, this modern place, I think it’s great. I do think they need to work on the food options a little bit at Yankee Stadium, because I’ve seen better options in other places, but the sight lines at the current Yankee Stadium are wonderful. It’s a comfortable place to see a game.
But the old place did have that aura, didn’t it? If you got there early, it echoed, and there was this imposing cathedral thing about the old ballpark that was just really intimidating and magical. So I’m going to deflect your question and say, I can’t make a decision. But let me put it this way: Maybe the new place develops its own mystique and aura over time.
Aside from Richie the Caseworker and maybe the DSM-5, what’s one book everyone should read?
I did go more literary on that one. People get intimidated by it because of the length and the language to an extent. But it is a very relatable book if you can be patient with it.