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Evolving Education: Students Help Vulnerable Residents During the Pandemic
By Rebecca McClaine
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 3 P. 8

For nearly five years, residents of the Westward Ho apartment complex in Phoenix have benefited from a partnership with Arizona State University (ASU). Renovations to the complex in 2015 created a 15,000-ft2 space, the Community Collaborative, within the subsidized housing complex of nearly 300 seniors and individuals with disabilities. Within the student-run center, interns from five different disciplines, including those from the ASU School of Social Work, receive hands-on learning experiences under faculty supervision by providing a variety of free services that address the psychosocial and preventive health needs of residents. For BSW and MSW students, this includes case management services, individual counseling and assessment, therapeutic groups, psychosocial education, and community building activities.

“Socialization is one of our biggest resources for residents,” says Stacey Gandy, MSW, an instructor at the School of Social Work and coordinator of the ASU/Westward Ho Collaborative.

On top of therapeutic groups, students from the university have helped organize daily social groups, including a book club and a creative writing group, game sessions, painting and sculpting classes, and craft hours. “Our doors would be open on certain days during certain hours and residents were able to come in and sit with each other or sit with us,” Gandy says.

One of the program’s main goals, according to Gandy, is to foster and enhance bonds among residents.

However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Collaborative center, like many institutes across the nation, had to close its doors to the residents. For the vulnerable population of Westward Ho, this had far-reaching effects. “Last year in March when COVID hit, we had to completely close down, which was really difficult for residents,” Gandy says. “Some residents still have contact with family members and have others they interact with, but then we have other residents who do not have any family contact at all, for various reasons. We have residents who just do not have a support system or a social interaction system.”

Addressing the Challenges
When the fall semester started, MSW and BSW interns at the collaborative started working on ideas to help the residents. “After orientation, the field supervisor made us aware of the challenges that were ahead,” says Ronald Bookman, an MSW student at ASU and an intern at the Community Collaborative. “We held discussions focusing on eradicating social isolation and harnessing technology for social good. It resonated with us, with the population we were trying to help. We weren’t open, so for the first few weeks, we just mulled over ideas of how to get services to these people and get in contact with them.”

One of the students’ first efforts was creating a “help line” phone service for residents. “This is a number residents can call to ask for anything from how to work their cell phone to case management questions,” says Taylor Elliot, a first-year MSW student at ASU. Residents could then be linked up with other services, such as counseling or therapeutic needs.

In talking with residents and seeing that social needs were not being met, students came up with another solution: “pen pal” and “phone pal” programs in which residents could choose to write or call an intern. Unlike the more formal check-ins with the help line, these platforms gave residents a chance to simply talk about their day-to-day lives. For some, this was much needed after months of isolation.

“I would call them, and I could hear it in their voice. Residents’ whole demeanor would change 180 degrees. It was just letting them know that they weren’t forgotten,” Bookman says.

Through conversations, students learned there was another glaring problem: food insecurity. “After coming back from summer break, we heard from residents how hard it was over the summer to keep food in their homes,” Elliot says. In the past, the Community Collaborative had operated a food pantry.

Elliot says, “We weren’t there over the summer, and the food pantry wasn’t available. They do have food stamp programs and the Salvation Army down the road, but many don’t drive. So, we’ve always had a food pantry that is open for an hour a day.”

Gandy says that, with a lot of advocacy, one of the first in-person services the interns were able to reopen was the pantry. By utilizing face shields for interns and constant cleaning, residents once again are allowed to come to the pantry, in limited numbers and for set times, several times a week.

“When we opened that first day, the residents were all saying, ‘We’ve missed you. We’re so happy,’” Bookman says.

Recognizing the need, the interns were able to advocate to keep the food pantry open over the ASU’s winter break. “We got permission to come in, because the university didn’t want any students to come in after Thanksgiving, rightfully so, with people traveling,” says Elliot, who notes that volunteers went in multiple times a week so residents would continue to have access. “We didn’t want them to go through that again.”

Therapy Solutions
Though case management and one-on-one therapeutic efforts resumed over the phone, many residents still were at a disadvantage. “There were several barriers, several challenges,” Gandy says, noting that some residents can’t afford internet access, have limited phone plans, or have difficulty utilizing technology.

With permission from ASU and Westward Ho, the interns provided separate rooms within the collaborative’s space for individual residents to use a phone. They also were able to open offices within the collaborative to provide individual counseling in a safe manner.

In addition, the Community Collaborative includes a room with four computers that residents used freely whenever the center was open. At the beginning of the spring semester, students were able to advocate for Westward Ho residents to once again come to the room. Elliot says residents can schedule half-hour- or hour-long individual appointment times and computers are cleaned after each use. Interns also provide help whenever asked, whether that is with computer use or with websites, such as trying to order groceries online.

Gandy says, “Each day the computer room has been opened up, it has been filled—that is a big one.” Residents can also bring their own laptops and cell phones to receive assistance.

Social Issues
With these needs met, the interns turned to social concerns. They initially had planned to reengage Westward Ho residents socially through the use of conferencing programs. Gandy says, “We tried to adapt and do some things online, but we weren’t able to provide a lot of services online or over Zoom like we had wanted to do.”

Some way, they wanted to get residents more involved.

Elliot says, “I hear stories about what it used to be like prior to COVID and how busy it was in the Community Collaborative, how many people were utilizing the center, that there was always something going on. A lot of residents would come in and spend quite a few hours every single day we are there, just hanging out. It was just part of their routine. And now they can’t do that.”

The interns brainstormed ideas on how groups could meet safely, keeping therapeutic and educational objectives and goals in mind, what the different groups would look like, and the anticipated needs of residents. After discussions and planning with supervisors during the fall semester, over the winter break the interns decided to plan for programs to be held outdoors with social distancing and mask use.

Fortunately, Westward Ho is located near a park, and the interns decided to utilize the space to first invite residents out for an informal meet-up. “Whoever wanted to come chit-chat in the park could. There was no agenda, there were no rules,” Elliot says.

Though initial turnout was low, residents had an energetic reaction. “We received a lot of positive feedback, so now we do it every Wednesday and Friday morning, since the middle of January.”

The low-pressure atmosphere is appealing to some residents, Elliot says. “Some people aren’t interested in getting attached to a group or involved in an activity, so they can do something less formal and just hang out,” she says, adding that the program’s impact was immediate. “One of my clients that I do counseling with said he really enjoyed it. Just having conversations with other people, hearing other opinions, was a big milestone with him.”

Bookman adds that although turnout was low for the first few sessions, he expects more residents to participate.

On the heels of the success of the informal meet-ups, the interns have started a few more group meetings in the park. In an effort to get residents to put aside their worries and relieve isolation, Bookman started a “mindfulness” group that teaches breathing exercises and meditation techniques. “They are helping me as much as I am helping them. It’s a give-and-take relationship, helping with social isolation,” he says.

Elliot has introduced “Furry Friends,” a group whose purpose is to have residents use their pets as a catalyst to develop new relationships with other people. “The residents had their hopes up; they wanted to join groups. So, to start this year off, we decided to do groups outside in the park outside from the Westward Ho building, and that’s been going well so far,” she says.

In addition to bringing their four-legged friends to the park for play, Elliot includes a different educational topic each week, such as the dos and don’ts of feeding your pets human food. According to Gandy, the Collaborative plans to invite speakers, including a dog behavioral specialist and a veterinarian, to give talks and answer questions. “Many of our residents have pets, and that is one of their main sources of comfort and interactions,” she says.

Gandy says there are plans for a women-only group called “Awesome Blossoms” and a men-only group called “The Round Table.” Westward Ho residents who normally wouldn’t have come into the collaborative for services and events for various reasons are coming out to the park events, which are less formal and intrusive.

“One of the things residents used to enjoy was coming down to the collaborative to play games, so we are looking to try and adapt this,” Gandy says. “We are trying to be creative, looking to try to add things to our park meet-ups.”

When things return to normal, the plan is to have these programs supplement traditional events. Gandy says that, like the park meet-ups, the phone pal program and others will continue after the Community Collaborative space fully reopens. “Because some residents really enjoy writing back and forth and some residents would rather call on phones instead of writing, it has been a very successful program,” she says. “We are looking to continue that program for our residents that are home bound, that can’t come down to the collaborative to participate in services.”

For Bookman, this year has been a rewarding learning experience. “The pandemic got to the heart of social work,” he says. “We’ve had to become adaptable to what we are doing. Our desire to help is what drove us to be creative.”

Rebecca McClaine is an intern with Social Work Today.