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Graduate social work students engage in projects to empower deaf people

January 26, 2011
Arrow Buff

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Master of social work students who took Dr. Martha Sheridan’s fall semester “Macro Social Work Practice” class, a course that focuses on the empowerment of deaf people in their communities and organizations, enhanced their experience in the social work field by becoming involved in community development projects.

Student engagement in these projects, which included collaborations with the American Red Cross (ARC) of the National Capital Region, Gallaudet’s Program Development Office, the Gallaudet Community Relations Council, and Friends of Buea School for the Deaf (FoBSD), has become an essential component for ongoing partnerships between social work graduate students in the class and the organizations they support. “The profession of social work is firmly grounded in principles of social justice,” said Sheridan, a professor in the Social Work Department. Therefore, the students apply the knowledge they acquire in the classroom through direct community and organizational development. Sheridan has long encouraged her students to collaborate with community organizations, resulting in partnerships that go back as far as 13 years.

“We work with individuals and families in a variety of roles, such as mental health counselors and school social workers, but we are also community organizers, organizational administrators, and work in policy positions,” said Sheridan. “These partnerships facilitate the organizations’ ability to meet their goals while meeting the objectives of the course, the MSW Program and the social work profession. The experiences allow us to contribute to the empowerment of deaf people on a global level, develop leadership skills in our students, and spread an awareness of Galladet’s mission through local and global outreach.”

Teresa Arcari, president of the board of FoBSD and a former Gallaudet social work professor, commented that one of the most beneficial aspects of the work done by students in the “Macro Social Work Practice” course is its annual focus on a wide range of important issues. For example, last year’s group established a prototype Facebook page for use by FoBSD to promote social networking on behalf of the Buea School. The students also attended meetings of the board and made recommendations to promote capacity-building. “It’s clear that these students take seriously the goal of organizational and social change,” said Arcari.

Students Anthony Davis and Alison Nutt worked collaboratively with staff and volunteers from the ARC of the National Capital Region toward the goal of increasing the number of certified deaf Red Cross volunteers, and increasing the chapter’s accessibility and readiness to respond to the needs of deaf people in disaster situations. Davis and Nutt coordinated a weekend pilot program of a Disaster Action Team (DAT) camp for deaf volunteer candidates. The camp, which was attended by six potential volunteers, led to certification in disaster assessment, client case management, and the operation of shelters in disaster situations. The training also influenced quality improvement in the accessibility of ARC’s DAT training. Volunteers may now attend ARC instructor training to offer additional DAT camps and continue to increase the number of ARC volunteers who are deaf and/or use American Sign Language. Davis and Nutt also provided deaf awareness presentations to Red Cross instructors and staff, and prepared a proposal for financial and institutional support for a future DAT camp.

Jennifer Kurtinitis, coordinator of disaster relief at the American Red Cross of the National Capital Region, remarked that she was impressed not only by the outcome of the pilot program, but by Davis and Nutt’s enthusiasm and dedication to ensuring its success. “I know this was a school project but (the students) never made it seem like it was just another assignment,” she said. “This was a fantastic experience. Ali and Tony were totally on top of things and were the driving force behind making everything happen. This project was that much more successful because of their efforts.” Kurtinitis added that because only a few Red Cross chapters are making strides in working with the deaf community, she takes great pride in the fact that the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region is moving in that direction. “This is a good step towards identifying how the Red Cross can work better with the deaf and hard of hearing community and how Gallaudet can connect with the disaster relief community. I think a great foundation has been laid and I look forward to moving ahead in the new year.”

Davis believes that the support he and Nutt were provided contributed greatly to their accomplishments. “We were fortunate to have volunteer recruits that attended the Disaster Action Team training that are so dedicated to making this project work. It is because of their dedication to this effort, as well as the dedication of our professor, Dr. Sheridan, and the American Red Cross staff and instructors that this project will continue to be successful in the future,” he said. The experience provided him personal satisfaction, as well. “The opportunity to work with The American Red Cross National Capital Region Office and its staff and volunteers on a project that enhances the lives of members of the deaf community, as well as every community on the face of this earth, was an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Davis.

Students Laura Dreany-Pyles, Courtni Hurd, and Jennifer Little developed a community needs assessment in conjunction with Gallaudet’s Program Development Office and the Gallaudet Community Relations Council. Surveys were distributed to Washington D.C.’s Ward 5 residents and council members who attended a Ward 5 Council meeting in December. Results from the survey will be considered as Gallaudet works collaboratively with its neighbors in planning for the future of the University and surrounding neighborhoods.

Collaborating with a wide variety of individuals and groups was an enlightening experience, said Little. Because of their involvement with a highly diverse community, the students in the project quickly determined that developing a needs assessment would be an effective way to work with the community to enhance Gallaudet’s relationship with its neighbors. Community members “were thankful that we took the time to approach them to ask for their opinions, feelings, input, and ideas,” said Little. “It was a learning experience that I consider to be positive because everyone was able to benefit from this project. I hope it will be continued in the future.”

Hurd’s reaction to working on the needs assessment was similar to Little’s. “My experience with 6th street project was challenging, yet eye opening at the same time,” she said. “I was amazed at how well we worked together to accomplish as much as possible. I learned that if everyone works together things can change for the better. Another thing I learned that was crucial was using our social work values to guide us and attempt to educate others as well. Those values include, but are not limited to: integrity, human worth and value, social justice, and service.”

Transformative citizenship education through service learning and global awareness of the needs of deaf children in developing countries were the focus of students Maggie Pierce and Stephanie Trollo. Working with board members and volunteers of FoBSD, an organization that supports the Buea School for the Deaf in the Southwest Region of Cameroon, Pierce and Trollo networked with schools in the United States to develop partnerships that would benefit BSD. Presenting about the needs of deaf children throughout the world to a wide range of students, from the Pope John Paul II Regional Catholic School in Philadelphia, Pa. to Towson University, they were able to increase awareness of BSD’s needs with the hopes of having these schools adopt BSD for their service learning projects. In addition, Pierce and Trollo introduced teachers to global awareness rubrics for utilization in the development of transformative citizenship education programs. They also brought attention to the concept of transformative citizenship education through a mini-conference on deaf education in Cameroon cosponsored with students from Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures professor Cristina Berdichevsky’s GSR 300: “Deaf Education in Cameroon” and General Studies Director Jan Hafer’s GSR 241 “Ethical Evaluations and Actions with Service Learning” classes. At that conference, Pierce and Trollo developed a handout entitled “Bringing Buea School for the Deaf to Classrooms in America: Evolving Identities in a Changing World.”

“The extensive literature review opened my eyes to the severe lack of citizenship education in our schools, and how this deficit in education deeply impacts students,” said Trollo. “This is something that will stay in the forefront of my mind for both my block internship and my future career.”

The projects mentioned represent “valuable real-word experiences which prepare students for practice as community and organizational change agents,” said Sheridan. “The students took these projects seriously and went above and beyond what was expected to accomplish their goals. The fact that these are ongoing projects allows us to make multiple contributions across time. We are grateful for the assistance of staff and volunteers from FoBSD, American Red Cross of the National Capital Region, Gallaudet’s Office of Planning, the Gallaudet University Institutional Review Board, the Gallaudet University Community Relations Council, and the District of Columbia’s Ward 5 for their support of these student projects.”

26 January 2011

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