San Diego, California - They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, Rodney Bates has “written” volumes of irreplaceable memories for hundreds of San Diego County foster youth and families.

Bates is retiring on March 27 after 14 years as a social worker. On top of all that the job requires, he’s filled in important gaps in the life stories of countless foster children through his photography.

“I got a call from one of my foster kids on a Friday night who wanted me to come to his football game,” said Bates, recalling one instance that proved the power of a picture. “It was pouring rain and I didn’t want to go.”

But as he’s done with all similar requests, he did.

“It was his final high school football game and he ended up being carried off the field on his fellow players’ shoulders.”

Bates captured that moment with his camera, as well as photos during the game.

“He told me he cried when he saw the photos I sent him,” said Bates. “He had been playing football since Pop Warner when he was 7 years old and no one had ever taken a photo of him playing football.”

Similar stories have played out throughout Bates’ time as a social worker for the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency.

He said he gets a bit overwhelmed when he walks into a foster family’s home and sees a whole wall filled with photos he’s taken for the foster child.

“You can’t put a dollar value on something like a photo,” he said. “I can tear a parent up like nobody’s business by showing them a photo of their kids.”

When parents whose children have been removed from their home come to the Child Welfare Services office in Escondido for visitation, Bates will capture the moment with photos.

“I’ll take a few pictures and give one copy to the parents and one to the kids,” Bates said. “That picture helps the parents remember why they are working to get their kids back.”

A collage of photos taken by Rodney Bates over the years.

Bates and his camera have become fixtures for foster youth attending Camp Connect – the County’s annual summer camp that reunites siblings that have had to be placed apart in foster care.

“Rodney has impacted Camp Connect in so many positive ways,” said Margo Fudge, HHSA protective services program manager and Camp Connect coordinator. “Not only has he been a tireless advocate for the Camp recruiting volunteers and working with caregivers to make sure their children can attend, he attends all the events we have throughout the years.

“He’s rarely seen volunteering without his camera and has become the historian of Camp Connect, capturing hundreds of joyous moments between siblings.”

Bates said last year they tried to figure out how many photos he had taken at Camp Connect and the end tally was more than 5,000.

If you ask Bates, he will insist that he’s not any different than any of his colleagues, that they all step up to do whatever is needed.

The job has made for a few sleepless nights over the years.

“Every night you go through your caseload and you ask yourself, ‘are my kids safe?’’ Bates said. “If they are, you can go to sleep and close your eyes. If they’re not, I might be at your house at 6 a.m. to check up on them.

“This is my community and these are my kids. They might not be my biological kids, but they’re my kids.”

He does have two kids of his own and two grandchildren. He also has a huge “family” of foster youth he’s built up through the years.

“The older kids call me grandpa and the younger kids call me uncle,” said Bates. “Kids build their own extended family.”

Bates also does several other volunteer activities. He coaches special-needs youth football and works with the STAR/PAL program with San Diego County law enforcement agencies and their Shop with a Cop event. He’s also served meals in homeless shelters.

In retirement, he’ll still volunteer with foster youth, but just in case he doesn’t get to everything, he’s been busy lining up replacements - including photographers for Camp Connect.

“Overall, this job has been very rewarding and I wouldn’t do anything different,” he said. “This is probably the toughest job anyone will ever have to do.

“There will always be one more kid and one more case.”