Students volunteer to reach out, change lives

Social Work Program Coordinator Heather Emert addresses stundent volunteers for the Changing Lives Outreach program.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Her job was to listen to recorded calls for help.

Callers would leave up to 15 messages a day on the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest emergency help line, especially at the beginning of the month when rent was due. One day Reese Brown saw that a message was the maximum 180 seconds and thought it was a “butt dial.”

“There is crackling in the background, so I was tempted to skip it,” said the Grand Canyon University social work major. “Then I heard her voice and realized she was waiting for a quiet place to talk. I realized she was trying to escape a domestic violence situation and needed assistance.”

Brown immediately called her supervisor to help the woman.

Though the calls are tough to hear, she feels like she is making a difference, and her work through GCU’s Changing Lives Outreach is valuable to her education.

Changing Lives Outreach is a new volunteer program for students in psychology, social work, counseling and behavioral health science that began in the fall semester. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences saw how well its counseling outreach with Alhambra K-12 schools had gone and expanded the collaboration to additional schools, community organizations and churches and gave it a new name.

Assistant Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dr. Kathleen Downey shows students the T-shirts they will receive for the Changing Lives Outreach program.

The 50 students who were trained and given faculty support last fall really did change lives, including their own.

“It makes me want to find ways that everyone can get what they need, the resources and assistance,” Brown said. “Just because they are going through a difficult time doesn’t mean they don’t need care.”

She also helped in Lutheran Social Services’ shelter for refugees and found them welcoming and kind, even during hardship.

“It showed me that despite difficult situations you can be loving and shine your light toward other people and that everyone is worthy of care and respect,” she said.

Another 27 students began training as volunteers for the spring semester on Monday. Many go to school programs that fill a vital need in K-12 schools short of counseling staff by helping co-facilitate psychoeducational support groups.

“A lot are underserved school districts, so they don’t have a lot of resources with many difficult family backgrounds and students who need overall support,” said Heather Emert, Program Coordinator for Social Work at GCU.

“A lot of their students haven’t been introduced to basic coping skills to deal with different stressors, to deal with anxiety or emotions,” she said. “Also, the college student can serve as a role model for them. A lot of times in discussion groups they start out on topics and end up wanting to find out more about GCU students who are volunteers and find out how they can take that next step as well.”

The program includes other organizations beyond schools, such as Lutheran Social Services, Future For Kids, Rise Up Glendale, Amanda Hope Rainbow Angels and Ohana with more partnerships expected in the future.

Students who put in at least 25 hours of volunteer work gain valuable experience in the field and get support from GCU’s behavioral health experts.

“This is super valuable because I am able to collaborate with full-time faculty that have years of experience,” said GCU student Lauren Williams. “This opportunity really connects what I’ve learned in the classroom and what I am doing while volunteering and also ties in with my future career.”

Her work with Future For Kids at Glendale Elementary School changed her future. She originally set out for a career in family and marriage therapy, but after volunteering “my eyes were opened to a new range of outreach.” She switched her major to social work.

It’s one of the goals of Changing Lives Outreach – to expose students to situations they wouldn’t experience in classrooms.

“Also, they just really want to serve the community,” Emert said.

The volunteers meet weekly with faculty to discuss their work in the field and how to handle situations.

Associate Professor Dr. Elizabeth Valenti directs student volunteers through an exercise in boundaries.

In a recent meeting wrapping up the fall semester, Director of Social Work Dr. Cheryl McAuliffe told the group that it’s a tough part of the job, moving on from clients you worked with for weeks and got to know.

“Termination is really hard and it’s also hard for the kids, too, and that is something to remember. It’s a grieving process,” she said.

Student Armando Velasco said that in his volunteer work with Rise Up Glendale, a substance abuse prevention program, he found that clients were seeking a “real connection” they perhaps didn’t get with teachers.

“I’m sad it’s over. I met some good students. I don’t know if they will graduate or not, but it was so nice to meet them,” he told the group.

They also talked about helping clients identify emotions.

“Good is not a feeling. Fine is not a feeling,” McAuliffe said.

To get them to identify emotions beyond the surface, even words not typical associated with emotions, such as bitter and inadequate or embarrassing and silly, takes observational tools such as reading body language and using activities to help them open up.

“I played more basketball than I’ve ever thought I would ever play when I was working with youth,” she said.

It’s the kind of in-the-field training and support that fits with GCU’s mission of helping the surrounding community.

“The students are really excited,” Emert said. “A majority of students will continue on in the spring semester. It’s a resume-builder, but they are also passionate about getting out and supporting the community.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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For more information on how to get involved in Changing Lives Outreach, fill out a student interest form or email [email protected].

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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

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