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Social Work is Essential: Alumni Stories from the Pandemic’s Front Lines

Meeting People Where They Are

A core principle of social work is meeting people where they are. For Esther Jo Alcorn, (MSSW 2009) that includes a parking garage. Alcorn, a social worker in Vanderbilt Hospital’s Emergency Room, recently spent two hours sitting in a car with the wife of an elderly patient who was in the ER.

“On a normal day, I would have met with her in a hospital family room and provided emotional support and education surrounding her husband’s condition and care,” Alcorn says.

Esther Alcorn

Since no visitors are permitted in the hospital now, Alcorn sat in the woman’s car and checked in by phone with the medical staff every 30 minutes. “This provided the wife with updates on her husband and kept her aware, focused, and calm,” says Alcorn. “I take each case individually and make my duties work. We use what we need to take care of the patients and their family members, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.”

“The services I provide are absolutely crucial to even the fundamentals of life,” she says. “With COVID-19, a lot of the cases are elderly couples who have been married for 40, 50, 60 or more years and now the spouse is being told ‘no visitors.’ This is where the social worker is really essential to all involved.”

Essential, Defined

Sunshine Parker (MSSW 2006; JD 2014) is very clear about what defines an “essential employee.” “An essential employee is an employee that is required to maintain the safety and welfare of the community during times of crisis,” she says.

As human services director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Parker oversees a staff of 70, including 30 social workers. Crisis or no crisis, the safety and welfare of the community is always the top priority.

“Our jobs haven’t changed because of the pandemic,” Parker says. “We don’t see a decrease in the number of kids who need to come into foster care, for example, or cases that have to be investigated. And like every other place in America, we’re dealing with the opioid epidemic. People are at home, with all their normal support systems gone. They may not be able to get to their meetings or access them online.”

Sunshine Parker

Parker’s department has worked to supply people with free phone service, and the community has stepped up, she says, offering rides to neighbors and lending them cell phones so they can access mental health and other resources.

Social workers who can’t connect with clients by phone or internet are making in-person visits, wearing masks that Parker and a community group have made. “Staff maintain six feet of distance during visits and have families step outside if they have to go into a home,” Parker says. “Families they visit are pre-screened with questions developed by our hospital and public health staff.”

A social worker and attorney by training, Parker values careful preparation as well the ability to respond quickly to unexpected circumstances.

“Our organization had been planning for closure since February so we knew what roles everyone would play when the announcement to close came out,” she says. “I am always advocating, planning, and strategizing with my teams, for my teams, and for our clients.”

Child Safety 24/7

Ashlie Seibers (BSSW 2018) currently serves as a regional placement services specialist for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. For her, being an essential employee “means continuing to ensure child safety twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, during this national pandemic.”

Ashlie Seibers

“Child abuse and neglect have not stopped due to COVID-19, and neither have the children entering the foster care system,” Seibers says. “We need foster parents in every county so our children can stay in the same schools and daycares, near their families, and minimize further trauma by being placed away from everything they know. While not everyone may be able to become a foster parent, I would encourage everyone to find their own ways to support the children and families in your communities.”

The pandemic has made finding foster homes even more challenging.

“With limited placement options, my job is to provide a holistic assessment of children and ensure they have a safe place to grow and play, while maintaining a sense of normalcy, during this period of uncertainty.”

Seibers counts on social work skills to do her job each day.   “My job is very fast-paced and requires a high level of skill in the areas of critical thinking and effective communication,” she says.

Ready, Set, Pivot

These days, flexibility is the watchword for Jordan Frye (BSSW 2015, MSSW 2016). “It is so necessary right now,” Frye says. “I’ve changed my system to adapt to the context about 10 times, and I’ve just got to be okay with that.”

As a community schools resource coordinator for the Great Schools Partnership, Frye works with neighborhood groups, businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations to address barriers to student and community success. She is also an adjunct instructor in the College of Social Work.

The pandemic has shifted her work from community development to direct need provision, she says.

Jordan Frye

Frye’s community school worked with a local church’s food pantry to provide a distribution site for supplemental food and other essentials like diapers and school supplies.

“This emergency is exposing needs that already existed,” she says. “I’m seeing food insecurity due to the fact that schools are closed, and limited access to technology to complete academic work.”

Frye shares lessons learned from the pandemic with her students and volunteers, particularly the importance of what she calls “holding the line.”

“It’s a kind of assertiveness, which is a basic social work skill. I’ve had to use it every week when reminding people about effectively implementing safety protocols,” she says.

“It can be hard to hold the line, but I think about it as an act of compassion.”

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