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'Called to make a difference': Graduating social work students put capstone projects into larger contexts

Creighton senior social work student Gwen McElhattan, second from left, and some of the people whose stories she helped tell as part of an event on health care access in Nebraska for her senior capstone project.There’s a metaphor among students and faculty in the Creighton University Social Work Program that goes something like this:

You’re standing on the banks of a river and you notice that babies in baskets, like the infant Moses, keep floating by. You do your best to pull as many of the babies out of the river as you can.

With any luck, you’re saving most of them and you’re also acquiring some help, such that, one day, you decide to go upriver and inquire as to why babies are being sent down the river. When you work on the source of the problem to sufficiently stop the steady flow of babies, you realize there are still a few eluding the safety nets and traveling down river.

And somewhere between the source of the problem and the final pull from the river, you create a network to help those babies who might still find themselves adrift.

“That’s the micro, the macro and the mezzo of social work,” said Gwen McElhattan, a senior social work major who just completed a capstone project to tell the stories of health care access for Nebraskans living in the state’s Medicaid coverage gap. “The micro is pulling the babies out of the river, the macro is finding out the why and how at a policy level, and the mezzo is creating a community, building a coalition of those experiencing the injustice, which can then provide a sustainable effort to both keep the babies out of the river and pull them out if they do go in.”

McElhattan is one of the Social Work Program’s cohort of 10 graduates this spring who have experienced a curriculum taking each student through more than 500 hours of service in their junior and senior years with local organizations, devising interventions on everything from preparing the children of refugees for kindergarten to combating human trafficking.

They’ve seen the impact of policies at the top on the people at the bottom, have reached out a hand to the least of these, and have worked to help at all levels of the social spectrum, striving to be men and women for and with others, examining the cura personalis of hundreds of individuals, seeking to live out a faith that does justice.

Creighton senior social work student Meg Maynard poses with a poster from the school she helped during her capstone project.“I felt called to make a difference in this way,” said Meg Maynard, a senior whose capstone project involved helping children and parents at a local elementary school tackle homework issues. “I think we all felt that call. Then, where do you start? How do you start? And where do you go from there?”

Maynard started to find those questions in her work at All Saints School and Completely KIDS in Omaha, where she worked with clients during the school day and students in afterschool programs. At All Saints — where more than 70 percent of students speak English as a second language, and some 27 different languages or dialects are spoken in the homes of the students — Maynard observed that many of the ESL students faced difficulty in completing homework tasks due to the language barrier.

To help parents, teachers and administrators understand the problem, Maynard drew up a survey that was translated into Spanish and which Completely KIDS staff helped read to speakers of other languages, all in the interest of getting a firmer hold on how the school could help provide resources at home for parents and students to help boost homework performance. With her supervisor, Diran Missak, Maynard also worked on building awareness of an online tool All Saints uses to track assignments and grades, an effort that took root among parents as well as faculty.

Maynard delivered the data to school officials who are now mulling options to help train staff and educate parents on how best to ensure more homework is getting turned in.

“It was a really powerful project to be engaged with,” Maynard said. “All of the projects we worked on made the problems real and drew us towards getting involved here in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s not something where you need to get on a plane and travel to help. There are issues right here in our own backyard.”

McElhattan’s project was an interdisciplinary approach to the question of health care access. Working with Nebraska Appleseed, a Lincoln-based nonprofit centered on legal and policy advocacy and community activism, McElhattan organized an event, “Well: Health Care Stories from Nebraskans,” to help give voice to some of the voiceless who have fallen through coverage cracks in the state.

With help from Creighton theater majors, McElhattan arranged for a group of uninsured or underinsured people to write their stories and have them dramatically related as monologues by three student actors. Following the monologues, eight more people were inspired to share their own stories of navigating the health insurance marketplace.

“You can talk facts, figures, statistics,” McElhattan said. “And we do that on the macro level when we’re looking at policy. But the best way of moving someone is to show them the problem — what’s happening at the individual level. You can’t say that a person’s story is wrong.”

Following the performances and testimonies, attendees were encouraged to send postcards to their Congressional representatives and state senators.

“I feel very much called to the micro and to the macro,” McElhattan said. “Working with Appleseed and doing this project, I felt that I could do both, see both in action. It’s something our community needs — that macro, micro and mezzo — and I think we’re blessed at Creighton, all students are, to be able to participate at some level of service in making our world a better place.”

Looking ahead, both Maynard and McElhattan hope to continue watching their capstone projects expand. Both will continue working with their respective organizations following graduation.

McElhattan, a student coordinator in the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice who has taken part in the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, will join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ national office in Berkeley, California and also serve with the East Bay Community Law Center there, where she said her experience with the capstone project will go with her.

“Without Creighton and the experiences I’ve had here, I would not have found what I want to do,” she said. “I feel blessed to have been a part of Creighton and the Social Work Program. It has led me to a better understanding of how you become an advocate for people and how you work for solutions, for social justice, for change.”

Maynard, who traveled twice to Peru, where she saw her social work career come into brighter light, hopes to return there and work alongside nonprofit organizations she encountered as a student.

“The opportunities Creighton gives us are values-based opportunities,” Maynard said. “We are encouraged to try different things, both academically and outside the academic setting, for a transformative experience. We are called to serve and a large part of the curriculum here is learning how to create a better world.”

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