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MSW students and faculty use spring break to help residents in need

MSW students Markela Batts and DeShanna Johnson recently joined retired UNC School of Social Work faculty member Joanne Caye on a trip to eastern North Carolina, where the group worked to help residents in need as part of an alternative spring break trip.

The social work colleagues, who worked alongside an interdisciplinary team of 20 other UNC student and faculty volunteers, spent five days in Tyrell County, considered one of the most economically distressed counties in the state. This was the sixth service learning trip to the county since 2009, and like many others, explored how environment, social experiences, education, and employment issues impact health.

“The trip focused on the social determinants of health from an interdisciplinary perspective in a very rural county that has no resident physicians or dentists, one nurse practitioner, and a poverty level of about 21 percent,” Caye said.
Volunteers also included members from the professional schools of UNC nursing and public health and from the division of physical therapy.

This year’s service learning experience involved a host of activities over the week, including:

  • Working with the senior center to conduct home visits and assessing seniors at risk of falling
  • Teaching health and physical education activities to elementary, middle and high school students
  • Working at the local food pantry to pack up food for residents
  • Building container gardens and assisting with painting projects at the elementary school
  • Constructing a low retainer wall for residents living along the Albemarle Sound
  • Clearing walking trails for the summer tourists and
  • Cleaning trash along the waterfront in Columbia.

In addition, volunteers delivered donated smoke detectors, nightlights, grab bars and bath mats to residents. Additional money raised prior to the trip was used to buy new tumbling mats for the elementary school gym and to help pay for roof repairs for the community’s food pantry.

For Batts and Johnson, both students in the School of Social Work’s Winston-Salem Distance Education Program, the service trip was eye-opening, especially around the challenges that some residents in the state face.

“Not all problems can be solved, but we still had an impact,” Batts said.

The students also enjoyed working alongside their colleagues from other UNC disciplines and demonstrating for them the value of having social workers on an integrated team of health care professionals. Many, Johnson noted, were unaware of what social workers encounter every day.

“I think we brought a different perspective to the activity,” she added.