Social Work Students Give Up Spring Break To Advocate for Policies in D.C.

UA Social Work Students on Advocacy Day 2016

There won’t be a post-spring break re-acclimation for a small group of social work students at The University of Alabama.

Instead, they’ll sit before members of Congress on Capitol Hill to advocate for three bills related to social work during the first University of Alabama (UA) School of Social Work Policy and Advocacy Washington, D.C., Fly-In on March 21-22 in Washington, D.C.

The program will provide UA BSW and MSW students with the opportunity to analyze and advocate for one of three bills: S 3434: Violence Against Women Veterans Act; HR 1290: Improving Access to Mental Health; and HR 253: Family First Prevention Services. Ohio State University asked UA to join the event, and 50 students were selected to participate.

The Fly-In will mirror one of the components of UA’s long-running D.C. MSW internship program, which provides field education, policy practice and advocacy opportunities. UA’s School of Social Work added a BSW D.C. program in 2014.

“The Council on Social Work Education put forth an initiative to incorporate more policy and advocacy experiences in our curriculum, so we decided it would make sense to work with what our school has done in D.C. for the last 38 years,” said Carroll Phelps, field coordinator for the Washington, D.C., internship programs. “We wanted to give students an experience of policy and advocacy in Washington for those who couldn’t participate in our BSW and MSW DC internship programs.”

The DC Fly-In is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between two prominent schools of social work, said Dr. Vikki Vandiver, dean of the UA School of Social Work.

“Led by each institution’s field education program, this event will provide students a rare opportunity to mix and mingle in a close-up and personal way with key politicians and national leaders in the social work profession — doing so in the very heart of government,” Vandiver said. “I have no doubt this experience will be transformative for our students not only now but for their future.” 

Students will have a full slate of events with speakers from policy and advocacy agencies, training at the National Association of Social Workers, tours, a panel discussion on social work careers led by MSW DC alumni, receptions with members of Congress and policy practice training, particularly in the points of emphasis and how to communicate effectively.

“They’ll all be involved in advocacy at some point, whether it’s for an individual client to get services or for a group of clients to be able to have access to resources,” Phelps said. “Teaching them on this national level, where they go before members of Congress, will prepare them to do that on any level.”

Alexi Bolton, a sophomore BSW and business student from Madison, was assigned to HR 253: Family First Prevention Services, which would restructure the funding requirements for family interventions. Current law provides more available funding when a child is removed from a home and placed in foster care than funding for preventive measures, Bolton said. Bolton said she is looking forward to working with the current students in D.C. to craft a strategy for presenting this policy.

Bolton hopes to have a career in nonprofit administration and already has experience implementing service projects, both through an art camp in her hometown of Madison and through 57 Miles, a UA Honors College development program in Perry County. Her previous experiences in those projects have shaped her interest in policy analysis.

“Someone once said to me that the problem with policy is not that it’s poorly written, it’s that policy makers don’t understand the field,” Bolton said. “So doing the service work and giving back allows me an avenue to see what this policy is directly affecting.”

Jonathan Harrell, a MSW student from Birmingham, participated in the undergraduate Washington internship program. He, like Bolton, is interested in how policy changes as it moves from the ground level to the House floor.

“In reading and understanding laws, things jump off the page, and you begin to apply them to real-life situations at the ground-level to determine how effective it can be,” Harrell said. “Do people have a realistic chance to get the resources? Reading it is one thing — but what are the true outcomes? I’m interested in becoming a health policy analyst, so this is a great opportunity for me.”

Military-Civilian Drift: Leaders Work to Bridge the Gap at S2C Summit

I spent last week at the University of Alabama’s second Service Member to Civilian Summit. S2C was full of amazing speakers from realms academic, government, and grassroots. It was a truly humble space where thought leaders strove to collaborate rather than “talk at” one another. A key theme kept emerging, and it is one that data support as relevant to veterans’ reintegration strongly, as do my own experiences. Social support. Tribe. Community. Military-civilian drift. We used a lot of words for the same problem and shared success exemplars to bridge gaps. We have military personnel falling into risk and illness because of issues related to alienation and we can change that together.

I came away thinking about that rallying cry – both for veterans to be resilient leaders who contribute and connect in their home communities and for civilian members of those communities to care, notice, and commit to change.

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Warrior Culture

My community is a military one, and we in the military social work and health communities know that we’ve lost too many this year. Not all veterans lose their social support systems upon returning home, though many of us do. It can be tough to stay close to people when we aren’t sure that we speak the same language any longer. Some veterans are blessed with the ability to keep communication lines open, even in hard times and with loved ones able to weather the storm alongside. These are the cases that highlight even more powerfully the importance of connection, and I will always be grateful that this was my brother’s experience.

I was already deployed to Iraq when my brother e-mailed me to share that he was probably going to propose to his girlfriend before he headed over. She was a civilian schoolteacher from Philadelphia that I had yet to meet, and I just rolled my eyes when he shared his romantic plans with me. I was surrounded by guys losing their girlfriends to the grind of deployment, and I expected that his schoolteacher would be mailing him the same “Dear John” letter after a few months. I told him I didn’t have a problem with the proposal but admonished him to buy her a ring made out of cubic zirconia. No sense in buying a diamond he might never get back.

As younger brothers often do, he ignored my advice and bought her a beautiful ring.

Well, that is some cash he will never see again! Should have listened to me!

He didn’t listen, but he did come home around the same time I did, sent back by a pressure-detonated IED that tore apart metal and bodies and all of our hearts.

When my brother arrived at Bethesda, we didn’t know what he might be facing. There was so much damage. On his third surgery, the physicians in the operating room took a vote about whether or not to amputate his leg at the hip; he had infection setting in and they were worried it could get worse. Two voted to amputate, and three voted to give him a couple of days.

Ward 5 was a dark place. We were surrounded by morphine drips, pain, injury, and struggling families who weren’t sure what to make of it all.

Into this world walked my brother’s civilian schoolteacher.

She won’t be able to handle this.

We Can All Be Warriors

When a wounded service member is medically evacuated, he or she often has a long period in a hospital ward and in lots of different outpatient treatment facilities ahead. There are no guarantees and it is painful for both the patient and those standing alongside. I watched the prospect of a long, uncertain recovery level some people. In others, I watched uncertainty and trauma bring out their diamond-hard character.

Throughout this period I watched his young fiancé with a cynical eye. I stereotyped her on sight—she was a pretty girl who often wore makeup and always had on matching accessories. I assumed she lacked gravitas and would fall apart any minute.

She never did.

When her leave ran out at work she went back to teaching all day long in nearby Virginia, but made the drive every night to sleep in a chair at my brother’s bedside. I would find her sitting by his side laughing about some silly thing or another, always keeping him smiling. She never complained and never gave up, never confessed fears about marrying a man with so many new health issues.

While I fumbled gracelessly in his hospital room, once even dropping a portable DVD player on his gaping wounds, she was all kindness and poise. She kept him looking toward their future on a daily basis. Even when he left the hospital and had to spend long days in a reclining chair. Even when he needed help with any and all of the most basic tasks.

The makeup had fooled me; she was more than serious. Only in her twenties, she helped him make it to the bathroom, shower, move, and get through hard physical therapy appointments without complaint. There were guys on the ward whose wives filed for divorce when they saw what they were going to have to struggle through together. I don’t think the thought ever crossed her mind. She helped him through medical retirement, a search for a new career and a civilian identity, and they became parents with that joyous excitement reserved for newbies who don’t yet know how much sleep they will soon go without.

She married a Marine with three sisters, all of whom would gladly hide a body for her today—no questions asked. She has a good memory though. Every now and again, I hear about that cubic zirconia comment.

Invisible Wounds

For me personally, this was the start of a very confusing time. I spent some nights in the hospital lounge, some with my parents at the Fisher House, and many others with friends in the local area. I began to struggle with leaving the hospital and interacting in the real world – it was a world I no longer recognized. Everyone was so casual and happy, oblivious to the pain and sorrow facing everyone I’d just left. I lost the ability to speak to civilians and my resentment seethed under the surface. I was simply angry with no way to articulate why.

And then, I got self-destructive.

Not all wounds are visible, and you can join us in working to navigate this space at the next S2C Summit. Look for dates next year! Until then, how can you connect? Where can you help?

Improving Transitions from Military Service to Civilian Life

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ALABAMA – Researchers, policy makers and federal agencies have been slow in coming to terms with the realities of being in long-term, worldwide conflicts in multiple countries and the impact that has on service members, veterans, their families, and their communities.

The 2nd annual Service Member to Civilian (S2C) Summit will be hosted by the University of Alabama’s School of Social Work September 21-23 2016; a special Pre-Summit Session on Moral Injury and Faith-Based Approaches to Supporting Veterans and Families will be held September 20, 2016. S2C is an international summit addressing the current and emerging needs of service members in their transition to civilian life (AKA Military to Civilian Transition; MCT. S2C will examine how service members from all branches of the military transition to civilian life and how we can improve that transition through translational science and service.

S2C will bring together service members, veterans, their families, and community stakeholders to meet with advocates, researchers, clinicians, educators, and policymakers from around the nation to better understand and explore ways that all stakeholders can improve the transition from service to civilian life.

The Objectives of the Summit:

Service members face a life of numerous changes in circumstance, experiencing frequent cycles of deployment followed by the challenges of reunion/reintegration with their families, children, communities, employers, and schools. The transition from military life to civilian life is difficult and can be exacerbated by mental and physical trauma. Thus, the S2C objectives are to:

  • Present current research and best practices for improving military to civilian transitions.
  • Build research and practice consortiums that bring service members, including National Guard and Reservists, veterans, and their families together with researchers, Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) clinicians and decision makers, civilian employers, researchers, students, and higher education leaders.
  • Articulate short-term and long-term translational agendas for research and practice in four core theme areas.
  • Provide job acquisition training and access to employment opportunities.

For the pre-summit event on September 20th, there will be an examination of how local communities can best support veterans and their families via collaboration and coordination within and among faith-based organizations featuring a panel of national experts discussing moral injury. Panelists include:

  • Dr. Nancy Sherman
  • Dr. Rita Brock
  • Dr. Bill Nash
  • Dr. Irene Harris
  • Also featuring Col Sean Lee, who will present on the “Partners in Care” program and its potential in Alabama communities and beyond.
  • Invited responses will present examples in Alabama communities of unfolding initiatives engaging and mobilizing local faith communities to support veterans and their families.

On September 21st – 23rd, the Service Member to Civilian Summit will officially begin. As a collaborative research summit, we will be honoring our nation’s service members from all branches of the military and addressing current and emerging needs of service members transitioning to civilian life, encompassing:

  • Civilian employers
  • Community-based organizations
  • Family and children
  • Higher Education

The 2016 Summit will bring together service members, veterans, their families, and community stakeholders to meet with advocates, researchers, clinicians, educators, and policy makers from around the nation to better understand and explore ways that all stakeholders can improve the transition from service to civilian life. S2C is hosted by The University of Alabama School of Social Work and is partly supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child and Human Development and support from The University of Alabama and other sponsors.

VA employees must pre-register via the VA ACES system before registering here. To register in VA ACES, VA employees should go to the VA internal website link for EES ACES registration: 

For more information

Karl Hamner at khamner@ua.edu or
David Albright at dlalbright@ua.edu

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