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Reeves and Taylor selected for interdisciplinary leadership training fellowships

Although social work students previously have been selected for the prestigious fellowship with UNC’s “Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND)” program, rarely have two MSW students been chosen for the honor during the same year.

That’s why Krysta Gougler Reeves and colleague Rachel Taylor are both thrilled and humbled to represent the School this year in the interdisciplinary leadership training. Sponsored annually by the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) and funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau, the national LEND programs train future health care leaders committed to serving the needs of children who have, or who are at risk for, neurodevelopmental and related disabilities.

Reeves, a 1st year student in the dual degree master’s social work and public health program, was selected for a full LEND scholarship—an award that pays $10,000 toward tuition, a $10,000 stipend for completing the program and full cost of health insurance. Taylor, a 2nd year student in the dual degree master’s social work and divinity program, received a partial scholarship, earning her a $10,000 stipend and full cost of health insurance.

Together, the students are among nearly 40 LEND trainees representing a wide range of disciplines across the campus community, including speech and language pathology, nursing, physical therapy, and education. The program is open to participants at the master’s, Ph.D., post-doc and professional levels.

Advocates, who self-identify with autism or other types of disabilities, as well as parents and caregivers, also participate in the year-long training. The goal is to give students a complete picture of how families’ lives are affected by developmental disabilities (DD), said Sherry Mergner, a School of Social Work clinical assistant professor and LEND clinical social worker faculty.

“The most unique piece of this fellowship is its interdisciplinary or inter-professional approach to learning,” she said. “The program really does help to round out, I think, a person’s view of disabilities. And as social workers, it is critical that we move out of our own silos and our own way of looking at things, so that we can see the whole picture.”

LEND fellowships offer students an intensive and immersive experience that includes clinical skill building, research, mentoring, and community outreach through clinics, consultations, continuing education and technical assistance. Students also are required to complete a problem-based learning course, in which different DD cases are presented and discussed every two weeks and Maternal and Child Health Leadership Consortium Training, which focuses on building leadership skills. The consortium addresses a myriad of topics, including dealing with conflict, family and professional partnerships, and cultural competence.

“Students not only learn about their own leadership styles, but because the consortium is conducted in a group setting, they also get to see where their peers are related to where they are and how people work together in groups,” Mergner explained. “It’s a really wonderful program in teaching participants to be leaders in the field of developmental disabilities.”

For Reeves and Taylor, the year-long fellowships also are a chance to further develop their interests in working with marginalized populations.

Reeves became passionate about issues of justice around women and children while studying for a degree in marketing and public relations at Anderson University in Indiana. A trip to the Dominican Republic and Uganda further inspired her to pursue nonprofit work and shortly after graduation, she accepted a job with a domestic violence and rape crisis agency in Ohio. She later interned with an organization that tutors and assists children in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

But the key break, she said, came in 2010, when she was hired at First In Families of North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit that provides direct family support to people with developmental disabilities and to those with traumatic brain injuries. Reeves started as a contractor, managing event planning but was eventually hired full-time as a program coordinator and director of the group’s Durham chapter to handle grant writing, fundraising and community outreach.

“Although I had volunteered with the Special Olympics in college, I had never worked closely with people with disabilities before, and I just fell in love with the job,” she said. “What really appealed to me was their person-centered approach. They believe parents and families and clients know what’s best. But I was also impressed with their work in human rights. People with disabilities are often invisible, and the agency’s work with them really fit well with all of the work that I had already been doing with kids and families and women.”

Reeves also quickly learned how much public awareness is lacking, specifically around the sexual healthcare needs of women with DD. Eager to address that gap, she applied for and was accepted into the School’s dual degree program in public health.

She is equally excited about tackling the issue through the LEND fellowship. As part of her training this year, she is interning with CIDD and helping to lead a sex education class for teens with disabilities and their parents.

“No one wants to think that people with DD are having sex,” she said. “They think they don’t need cervical exams or they don’t need breast exams, and that’s just not true. It’s really important for self-advocates to be aware of that and for families to be aware.”

Like Reeves, Taylor also found herself drawn to social work and to families with developmental disabilities in college. After graduating from UNC with a degree in religious and environmental studies, she considered applying to seminary school. But Taylor eventually joined AmeriCorps and headed for New York City, where she worked with an Early Head Start program in the South Bronx. In the process of screening children for the program and working with families, Taylor gained a greater appreciation for social work.

“And that’s when I realized that ‘Wow, I love this stuff, but I really need a lot more training to do it well,’” she recalled.

After two years in New York and then some time in Eastern Kentucky, where Taylor worked for a domestic violence shelter, she was accepted into the School’s dual degree program with Duke Divinity in 2011. As part of her degree program, Taylor interned with Reality Ministries in Durham, a nonprofit that supports individuals 14 and older with developmental disabilities.

“That work really made me interested in this population, but it also made me realize that I had been encountering people with disabilities all of my life,” she said. “They were in my church and at the Early Head Start where we did a lot of screenings for kids and at the shelter where we had a lot of families with kids with disabilities.”

Currently, Taylor is learning how developmental disabilities also can impact the lives of incarcerated women and victims of crime. As part of her fellowship, she is interning with Benevolence Farm in Alamance County, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for women leaving prison “to live and work on a farm where they grow food, nourish self, and foster community.”

“There’s a deeper intersection there than I think most people would think of,” she said. “Most of the women who are incarcerated are also moms, and some have children with disabilities. And since family reunification will be part of our program, having a deep understanding of how to help families navigate the healthcare system will be important.”

In addition, Taylor is using the research component of the fellowship to explore how faith-based organizations and multi-faith communities can assist families with developmental differences.

“I’m just so grateful that LEND was open to having a master’s divinity and master’s social work student because I know I’m a very atypical fellow,” she said. “So to me, this fellowship feels like a huge gift because not only do I get to see how social work is an important part of what health is, I also get to show how faith communities are working to foster health and community.”

Having the opportunity to collaborate with and to learn from university peers now before moving into the social work profession is also rewarding, Reeves added.

“Especially to be among those who I may be working with after graduation and to be able to develop those relationships now and to see how the healthcare system functions in the real world and from a perspective of cross disciplines, it’s been really eye opening so far.”

For more information on the LEND Social Work Fellowship, contact Sherry Mergner at or at 919-962-6463.