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Chico State

Social Work Alumna Casey Hersch and her Cat Pawso Teach the Mind/Body Connection and How to Heal

Social Work Alumna Casey Hersch

“But for a moment, my mind starts to churn. I can change my thoughts with a shake and a turn!”

So says Pawso, a very special cat who shows kids (and adults) how to cope in difficult situations by using their minds and bodies to shake off bad feelings and change their outlook. Named after the Paso Doble, a form of Latin ballroom dance, Pawso is a foster cat adopted by psychotherapist, author, animal advocate, and avid Latin ballroom dancer, Casey Hersch, who graduated from Chico State in 2006 with a master’s degree in social work. Herch’s first book, I am Pawso: A Cat Teaches Kids Ways to Turn Around Difficult Situations, follows her cat as he manages uncomfortable feelings and relationship conflicts by using his inner powers to calm down, embrace differences, and feel more confident.

“I’m a big believer in animal advocacy and the role that animal companions have in our quality of life and our healing,” said Hersch. “My whole life’s work has been focused on helping people lay a foundation to overcome adversities in their early years and to believe that their life really is their own.”

Raised in a rural town in Plumas County, Hersch grew up in the wilderness, surrounded by a vibrant forest, cool streams, and the alpine peaks of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. This is blink-and-you-miss-it country—the nearby town of Greenville was nearly lost in the Dixie Fire in 2021. The challenges of living in an isolated and economically depressed area made their imprint early on.

“As a child, I could have gone many different directions because there was so much hardship in my community,” said Hersch “When you have poverty and generational trauma, you are set up to recreate those patterns unless there are ways to break them.”  

Though poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence colored her childhood, she credits adversity for building her ability to connect to others who have experienced similar struggles.

“My work heals me, because when you are focused on the greater good and a higher purpose, it gives you meaning,” said Hersch. “It makes my trauma less of a burden and more of a strength, because I can help others avoid the pain I endured.” 

Casey Hersch and her cat Pawso

Though no one in her family had ever gone to college, education had always been valued at home, and both she and her mom saw it as a way out. She started playing piano at an early age, paid for by her mom’s housecleaning money after her parents’ divorce. They read, sang, and talked a lot at home, which Hersch calls critical in the first five years of child development. She attributes her self-esteem, drive, intelligence, and discipline to her mom’s attention to positive experiences, despite the challenges of low income and geographic isolation.

Realizing early on that there would be no money for college, Hersch built her resume by participating in community service and the arts, she collected letters of recommendation, and applied for every scholarship. By the time she graduated valedictorian, she had earned a full ride to UC Davis. She became a bank manager and then went back home to Plumas County to work in family law as a child custody court investigator, all while struggling with chronic health problems. She was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, and credits her illness for shaping the direction of her work.

“There’s plenty of research that says when you have a lot of trauma, you also end up with disease,” said Hersch. “In order to heal you can’t just look at the physical, you have to look at the emotional. Much of my work has been centered around helping people understand how they can live a quality life despite having an incurable disease.”

As she focused on recuperating, her career goals came into focus, and she entered the Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) program at Chico State, receiving the Graduate School of Social Work’s MSW of the year. It was there that she felt seen, found her worth, and first allowed herself to dream big.

Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Work, Patti Hunter, recalls Hersch as a passionate and humble student who had a genuine desire to make an impact on her community.

“Casey is intentional in every aspect of her life. One of the qualities I have admired most about her is her willingness to share what she has learned, from ballroom dancing to wellness strategies to self- advocacy,” said Patti. “As she has continued to grow and gain a better understanding of her own childhood, she recognized a calling to empower all children with knowledge and skills that will help them navigate life.” 

Hersch credits the program with teaching her as much about friendship and the importance of relationships as academics. From compassionate mentors to peers who supported her unconditionally, she found another family at Chico State.

“I had been hurt a lot in my life starting at a very young age. All of a sudden, teachers and students who were so different from the kinds of people I had known accepted and loved me for me,” said Hersch. “The program was an opportunity to open a door to myself and say, ‘Here I am,’ and meet myself for the first time in a container filled with love and unconditional regard.”

She considers I Am Pawso her gift to the world, with the hope that other children won’t have to go through what she went through alone. The book is meant to intervene with a healthy toolkit for coping instead of allowing kids to stay sick and stressed as they grow into adults.

Hersch created a healing companion guide to the book for parents, teachers, and therapists, that includes lesson plans, activities, and discussion questions to help ease implementation of the book into schools, clinics, nonprofits, therapists’ offices, and beyond. Ideally, she hopes that I Am Pawso advances the conversation around trauma and disease within the fields of social work and mental health.

“My goal right now is to do everything I can to bring attention to the book so that I can break some of those barriers that make it difficult to breathe new ideas and resources into these traditional systems,” said Hersch. “I feel like my purpose here is bigger than any disease and bigger than my physical body. That’s my mentality that, on a spiritual level, drives me.”

The book, I Am Pawso: A Cat Teaches Kids Ways to Turn Around Difficult Situations, is available for purchase on Amazon. Her husband, Scott, illustrated the book by taking real photographs of Pawso. When Hersch is not writing, she is dancing, serving her community, and playing with Pawso and his sister, Samba. Learn more about her journey.