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The deaths of 39 people in last year's Lamma Island ferry collision brought home the fact that no matter how advanced a city we live in, we are never totally protected from tragic events.

While we watched the fallout unfold on TV and in the newspapers, we might not have noticed those who, behind the scenes and away from the cameras, cared for and consoled those affected by the tragedy.

The government's Social Welfare Department (SWD) is one such body that has been working with victims' families and survivors since the night of the accident, particularly through its team of Assistant Social Work Officers (ASWOs).

"Despite the chaos [of the night], my colleagues and I helped people find their loved ones and provided psychological first aid and supportive services to help the survivors and their families overcome the traumatic experience," says Miriam Poon, an ASWO who was placed at Pamela Youde Nethersole Hospital at the time.

"After survivors were discharged from the hospital, we continued to provide ongoing counselling and supportive services to help them get through the bereavement process and start anew in the community."

ASWOs such as Poon are essential in the SWD's mission of building a caring community in Hong Kong. The majority work in front-line service units and perform a number of specific roles, such as counselling, crisis intervention and casework services.

The SWD currently has openings for at least 30 new ASWOs - though interested parties will have to act quickly, as the application deadline is 11 March.

Applicants must be registered social workers under the Social Workers Registration Ordinance (Cap. 505). They should have a degree in social science, majoring in social work, or a master's degree in social work or equivalent. They also need to have obtained a pass in the Aptitude Test, and Level 2 in the English and Chinese language papers, in the Common Recruitment Examination or equivalent.

Aside from academic qualifications, the SWD also looks for a number of other character traits that make up a good ASWO.

"We look for candidates who have empathy for the needs and concerns of the customers, good communication and interpersonal skills, sound judgement and analytical ability, and capability in facing challenges," says Pedro Leung, principal executive officer (HR management) at the SWD.

He adds that the job is particularly appealing to those who are committed and highly motivated to serve the public. "They will find that being part of the administrative team that renders the services that the disadvantaged and vulnerable most need in difficult situations is both meaningful and satisfying," he says.

Poon agrees. "I am delighted when problems are finally resolved and people are helped through our joint efforts."