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Armfield-Reeves Fund helps researchers launch innovative projects

Any academic researcher who has ever applied for a grant knows the process can be painstakingly time consuming and extremely competitive. Red tape and funding eligibility requirements can be daunting and ultimately discouraging, especially for those in search of seed money to kick start a project. And in a tight economy, grantors are often reluctant to dole out dollars, even to the most promising research.

“Big funders don’t generally want to do something that seems too risky and they especially don’t want to hand over a half million dollars if they think you can’t pull the research off,” said Rebecca Macy, the School’s L. Richardson Preyer Distinguished Chair for Strengthening Families and associate dean for academic affairs.

Removing such obstacles is exactly what the creators of the School’s Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund aimed to do when they launched the grant program in 2007. The fund was established with nearly $600,000—generous gifts from Sam and Betsy Reeves of Fresno, Calif., and Billy and Janie Armfield of Richmond, Va.

Being able to tap into a group of creative people who are committed to solving some of society’s most pressing needs just made good sense, said Sam Reeves, a ’56 UNC alumnus and staunch supporter of the University.

“I believe in what they’re doing at the School because (researchers) are pursuing programs that are about valuing people,” he said. “I think the goal for this always has been to come up with innovative programs that provide ways in which people can have more opportunities.”

Since the first grants were announced in 2008, nearly $288,000 has been awarded to support 23 faculty and graduate student-led projects that are focused on community-based engaged research. Grant amounts generally have varied between $5,000 and $25,000. Much of this funding has enabled School researchers to collect valuable pilot data that is then used to build more comprehensive studies.

“This funding really has been incredible because it has encouraged faculty and students to think outside of the box, especially knowing that there is a place to get support for innovative ideas,” said Mary Beth Hernandez, the School’s associate dean for advancement. “But all of these projects are the result of the generosity of Billy and Janie Armfield and Sam and Betsy Reeves. Time and again, they have shown support to our School and admiration for the research work that our faculty members produce.”

From the start, the Armfield-Reeves fund has sustained a wide range of projects designed to improve the lives of children, families, and communities. Among these studies have included:

  • Interventions aimed to keep more middle school aged students in school
  • A pilot test of a program designed to decrease substance abuse among former prisoners and to reduce prison recidivism
  • A study to evaluate University support services for LD and ADHD students
  • A project aimed at addressing the gap in mental health services to black youth

Although each study has targeted different populations or addressed different needs, all reflect “the University’s mission of service to the state of North Carolina,” Hernandez said.

That the School continues to spread its research work into all 100 counties in North Carolina was just another reason to support the establishment of the innovation fund, Reeves added.

“If you want to touch every county, sociologically, the only place to go to is the School of Social Work,” he said. “That’s how you leverage your money. We have all these bright intelligent people here who have all worked in the field and in some way, they are touching every part of our state.”

Moreover, the funding has enabled School faculty to take on research projects that have rarely, if ever, been explored. Professor Michael Lambert was awarded $10,000 in 2010 for just such a project. The funding has been used to support Lambert’s efforts to improve the mental health services and outcomes of black youth. Such youth generally do not receive or drop out of mental health services prematurely. He is particularly interested in learning more about interventions that would encourage more black youth who need mental health treatment to obtain such services. He’s equally concerned about how to ensure that they stay in treatment as long as is necessary to address their behavioral and emotional concerns. Lambert’s investigation also explores what professional clinicians can do to ensure that these same young people get the care that they need.

A few themes have emerged from the study’s preliminary findings. Parents of black youth have suggested, among other ideas, the need for more black male therapists, advocacy education for parents so that they can better support their children, culturally appropriate treatment plans, and intensive efforts to build trust between therapists and clients. Youth interviewed also suggested that counselors should do more to get to know them first before addressing “presenting issues,” and to be cautious about “providing diagnoses and prescribing medications.”

Lambert is still analyzing the study’s data but is eager to move forward with developing youth intervention and clinician training prototypes. Because he only recently began to amass research experience on intervention development and treatment outcome studies, Lambert knew getting external funding initially would be difficult. However, the Armfield-Reeves money provided the resources he needed to kick start his investigation and should help as he pursues additional money outside of the School to support his research, including an efficacy trial.

“Long term, this funding will help me to further develop my expertise and begin to establish a stronger research record in this area,” he said.
The value of such start-up dollars really can’t be minimized, said Macy, who has received two Armfield-Reeves awards. The associate professor studies family violence, interpersonal violence, human trafficking, and violence prevention.

“This pilot funding definitely increases the chances of getting something from a much bigger funder down the road,” she said. “That’s important at a time when it’s so difficult to get grants.”

Macy received her first Armfield-Reeves funding in 2009, when she and former School Associate Professor Susan Parish were awarded $20,000 to develop an intervention aimed at reducing sexual assaults against women with intellectual disabilities. The researchers designed a sexual assault prevention program manual and are working to submit a federal grant proposal to rigorously evaluate their intervention.

The second award came last year, when she and Gary Cuddeback, an assistant professor at the School, were awarded $5,000 for a pilot study in Orange County. The researchers are examining the connection between interpersonal violence and women with severe and persistent mental illness. Macy said she realized the need for such a study while offering trainings to community-based advocates who work with domestic violence survivors.

“Many of them kept asking about serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression because they said they were seeing more and more women with these issues in their shelters, and they weren’t sure what to do to help them,” she said.

At least 70 to 80 percent of women with a severe and persistent mental illness experience domestic violence in a lifetime, Macy said. Still, she and Cuddeback wanted to know more about the local community need. So, last summer and fall, they hosted focus groups with domestic violence service providers and providers of mental health services. From those discussions, Macy said they’ve learned that both groups face similar hurdles in trying to help women with complex needs.

“Domestic violence providers don’t have the training and knowledge to assist them but at the same time, they are still committed in trying to do something for these women,” Macy said. “Likewise, mental health service providers don’t always understand all the domestic violence services that are out there for women, including for those who may need a protection order or counseling.”

Long-term, Macy and Cuddeback may submit a grant to the National Institutes of Health to advance their efforts. “Eventually, we hope to develop an intervention or a training model to help address these vulnerable women’s needs by addressing the gaps in services.”

The Armfield-Reeves fund helped make this work possible and enabled the researchers to get the data they needed to strengthen their overall study, Macy added.

Reeves appreciates that the fund is already making a difference. As a businessman, he also believes his family made a great investment, not only in the School but in those whose lives will be affected by social work research.

“The returns,” he said, “have far outweighed the financial costs.”