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Two MSW students turn life-altering experiences into advocacy for others

Although people choose to enter the social work profession for different reasons, at least two current MSW students began their journeys after life-altering experiences that continue to influence them and their advocacy work today.

Karen Kranbuehl, Triangle Distance Education MSW Program

Kranbuehl’s eventual path into social work began in 1995, the year she entered recovery from alcoholism. Then a senior at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Kranbuehl had been struggling with addiction since her mid to late teen years. From her first drink at age 16, she knew that alcohol would play more than a social role in her life.

“I pretty much got drunk before school one morning and I thought, ‘Wow—this is a key to my life,” Kranbuehl recalled. “‘Now I get it. This is going to help me live.’”

Instead, she sank deeper into alcohol abuse, especially in college. Severely depressed, Kranbuehl finally decided to confront her parents about her drinking shortly after her college graduation. With her family’s encouragement and support, she entered substance abuse treatment and began attending meetings with the 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous (Note: Kranbuehl has given us permission to share her story, including her work with AA.)

In time and with a lot of emotional and physical work, her life improved. Over the next nearly 20 years, Kranbuehl accomplished numerous personal and professional goals. In addition to successfully maintaining her sobriety, she graduated from law school at William & Mary, clerked for a judge in Tennessee, and worked for a private law practice in Chicago. In between, she also married, had two children, and moved to North Carolina in 2005.

If there is any other common thread among all of these milestones, it is that each involved a physical move from one state to another. That kind of frequent change can be difficult for someone in recovery, Kranbuehl said.

“Each time I moved, I kept having to find meetings and get re-acclimated to the AA of that place,” she explained.

But Kranbuehl had an additional hurdle. She identifies as an atheist, so finding a meeting that was not overly religious in tone was often difficult. Although AA is not associated with “any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution,” its history is rooted in a 20th century religious movement in the United States and Europe. According to Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, the program relies largely on “self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation, and carrying the message to others.” Moreover, half of AA’s 12 steps mention God or a need to turn to a “higher power” to beat alcohol addiction.

For a nonbeliever, “it can be challenging to work these steps about God when it doesn’t feel true,” Kranbuehl said. “It doesn’t feel authentic, and it’s not meaningful.”

For years, counselors and others had suggested that she just ignore the AA content that didn’t fit her life. She tried. But following the move to North Carolina, Kranbuehl said she realized that to maintain her sobriety, she had to find a group that truly met her needs. So in 2009, she decided to launch her own, hoping to reach other nonbelievers in the Triangle area also yearning for an alternative in AA support.

She knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially in a southern state in the heart of the Bible Belt. As expected, some AA groups and members criticized the idea and tried to disband the new group. AA doesn’t work without God, opponents claimed.

Kranbuehl refused to give up, and “Agnostics and Others” continued to grow slowly. Today, the group hosts about 25 members every Monday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh on Wade Avenue.

The goal is to let people know that they can be sober in AA without having to accept another’s belief or deny their own belief,” Kranbuehl said.

“That’s actually in our agnostic preamble—that you can do this with the belief that you have,” she said.

Although agnostic members are still free to attend other meetings and Kranbuehl regularly encourages them to do so, she knows the group is serving its purpose. “A lot of people come in and say, ‘This is the first time I ever really felt that I could share in a meeting. Or I’ve tried AA three times, but I think I can do it with this group.’ It’s really common for people to say that without this group, they think it would be really hard to (follow the program).”

Kranbuehl’s work with the agnostic group has convinced her of her place in social work, a profession she said pairs perfectly with her background in law. Long-term, she hopes to work in some capacity with a substance abuse program, a field she is eager to contribute to based on her own recovery and experience with addiction.

In the meantime, Kranbuehl is excited about serving on a panel in November at the first international conference of Agnostic AA members in Santa Monica, Calif. She is also working on an article about her experience and the “society of Christian privilege.” Professor Iris Carlton-LaNey encouraged Kranbuehl to write on the subject after hearing her speak about it last semester for an assignment in her “Confronting Oppression and Institutional Discrimination” class. She praised Kranbuehl for taking on such an “uncomfortable” topic in a deeply religious state.

“…Karen had the courage and the will to demand a service that has historically been reserved for Christians,” Carlton-LaNey said. “But like any good change agent, she realized that she was the solution and became the agency that she, and others, needed.”

Agnostics and Others AA group meets every Monday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the sanctuary at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, 3313 Wade Avenue. Open meeting discussion format.

Blake Tedder, Full-time Chapel Hill MSW Program

Tedder understands ableism more than most. As a burn survivor, he’s faced his share of stares from strangers, endured awkward questioning about his scars, and cringed at insensitive comments or descriptions that depict people with disfigurements as “monsters.”

Such acts of oppression are under recognized far too often, Tedder said.

“I think the reason you don’t hear a lot about it is because of the very nature and history of the condition,” he explained. “Historically, we used to punish people who were bad or wicked by giving them the physical scarring of burns. We burned people at the stake or punished them because they had to pay for their sins. Culturally, we, as a society, have ostracized those people. So over time, people made the connection that this person must be bad.”

Those myths are exactly what Tedder works diligently to dispel from the burn world. His advocacy efforts began in earnest in 2007, six years after the Rocky Mount native and his father, Jerry, survived a plane crash in the mountains of Aspen, Colo. Both sustained burns to 35 percent of their bodies. Because of the severity of their injuries, father and son each spent about three months in the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospital. Tedder, who was just 16 at the time of the accident, underwent 12 skin graft surgeries and had to relearn to walk and talk, and to feed, dress and bathe himself.

Over the years, the more his body healed, the more Tedder realized he needed to step up and be a voice for himself and for other burn survivors. Shortly after graduating from UNC with a BA in psychology and anthropology, he became an active volunteer with the North Carolina burn center and a certified volunteer with the national Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, an organization that offers peer support to people with burn injuries.

“Initially, that was the only way I knew how to cope with feeling different and with looking different,” Tedder said of his volunteerism. “I needed to empower myself by surrounding myself with people who experienced the same experiences as me. Going through fire is something on the level of spiritual. To experience the pain and the trauma that comes along with those kinds of injuries—it’s really incredible and to have someone to talk to is so important.”

In fact, Tedder continues to do a lot of talking. In addition to speaking with nursing school programs around the state over the past seven years, he has helped prepare burned children returning to school and visited countless burn patients and their families at UNC Hospital. Tedder also has participated on panels at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress. A trained yoga instructor, he will lead a yoga workshop this October during the conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Most recently, Tedder presented on the marginalization of burn survivors in Prof. Carlton-LaNey’s class on Confronting Oppression. His instructor was impressed with his commitment to the cause.

“He has clearly not taken the victim role and although he has experienced ableism in many of its various forms, he has chosen to be empowered by it,” Carlton-LaNey noted.

That confidence and authority also give him the strength to educate others about the realities of the burn world, Tedder added. As a social worker in training, he’s excited to be a part of a field that is built, in part, around the importance of legitimizing individual experiences. Tedder is determined to ensure that the experiences and needs of burn survivors get the attention they deserve in social work practice.

“As social workers, you’re going to come across people in clinical settings with burns, especially in abuse cases” and in child protective services, Tedder said. “I really want to educate people in how to be sensitive in talking to people about burns … and the importance of linking that community with greater resources, and just giving them more exposure overall. Those are all the things I really feel like as a social worker I can do.”