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School of Social Work’s Amy Levine embraces partnership with N.C. substitute care nonprofit 

by Chris Hilburn-Trenkle

Although Interim Director of Practicum Education Amy Levine first worked with SaySo North Carolina as a social worker for public child welfare in Orange County, it was when she began teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work that the relationship truly began to blossom. 

During Levine’s first semester as a clinical assistant professor, representatives from the organization, which helps provide a voice and support for youth in substitute care, the juvenile justice system and group homes, presented to her “Child Welfare Perspectives and Practice” (SOWO 860) class. The representatives shared their experiences in the child welfare system and some of the policy work and legislative advocacy the organization performs around the state of North Carolina.  

At the end of the presentation, the representatives mentioned the organization’s “Make A Difference Day Event,” a yearly drive held every October during National Foster Youth Voice Month to collect luggage, duffel bags and personal care items for youth entering the foster care system in North Carolina, who often arrive with their belongings in trash bags, according to Carmelita Coleman, SaySo’s executive director. 

Volunteering at the event and raising awareness for the work done by SaySo around the School of Social Work community became a yearly tradition for Levine and her students. Soon, Clinical Assistant Professor April Parker, who joined the School in August 2021, had her students partner with Levine’s class to attach encouraging notes to the suitcases and bags given to youth. 

“Having the partnership with Professor Amy and the School of Social Work to have social workers collect duffel bags, hygiene items, that we’re able to take and give to our partners at the Department of Social Services or staff who are on the front lines supporting youth when they first come into care, it makes a tremendous difference and impact for young people to have their own bag that they can keep and regardless of where they go in their foster care journey they have that one bag with them,” Coleman said. 

Improving the substitute care system 

SaySo, which stands for Strong Able Youth Standing Out, is a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 with the goal of improving the substitute care system for children aged 14 to 26. Recognized in all 100 counties in North Carolina, the youth-driven organization works to educate communities, advocate for change through the legislative system, and support youth in the foster care system around the state. Funded through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program and contracted by the North Carolina Division of Social Services, SaySo has more than 750 members statewide and is still growing.  

While the “Make A Difference Day” is one of SaySo’s marquee events to benefit youth in the substitute care system, it’s far from its only impactful program. The organization focuses on leadership opportunities for its members, and each year holds a “Governor’s Page Week” for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors, giving them a chance to serve as short-term interns for the governor or members of the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives.  

“They’re either running papers or they’re learning about the civic and education and government processes in North Carolina,” said Kourtney White, SaySo’s program coordinator. “They spend a week doing that. We have partnerships with each of the page program directors to where they set an entire week aside just for SaySo youth. We really try and make the focus of that week around foster youth voices. Getting youth a seat at the table. Getting lived experience around tables where decisions are being made for them.” 

As the organization continues to see its influence grow, it’s figured out new ways to amplify its message. In the past year SaySo merged its advocacy day, allowing alumni and young adult leadership to speak with state legislators in Raleigh. One event in Robeson County focused on youth transitioning out of care, helping individuals with tasks such as advocating to obtain their driver’s license, creating a budget, grocery shopping and finding other ways to project their voice. Every April the organization has a weekend camp to help connect youth with one another. 

“SaySo does incredible work just supporting young people in care who can come to a SaySo event, who can meet someone else who is going through a similar thing as them, who can also learn and get strength and support one another,” Levine said. 

Impact for UNC students 

In addition to volunteering at the “Make A Difference Day Event,” Levine’s class annually hosts SaySo members, who spend a week with the students sharing their recommendations for care and advocacy, giving students first-hand knowledge of their experiences in foster care and the impact of the child welfare system and providing simulations for individuals entering and transitioning out of the foster care system.  

“What’s really powerful to see in the presentations when SaySo comes to the class, let’s say, and presents to a panel of young people: you see how empowering it can be for an individual to share their story, you see the connections they have with one another, you see their desire to tell us as social workers and future social workers, ‘Here’s what needs to be different,’” Levine said. “It’s really this cool combination of connection and support but also leadership. It allows these young people to be leaders for us as social workers and be able to understand and support the needs of people when you’re listening to what it is that they’re telling you they need.” 

At the end of each year, Levine, who joined the School in August 2015, hands out evaluations for her students. One of the consistencies she’s noted in the responses is the impact students said SaySo had on their learning experience, allowing them to understand how to partner with young people and support their efforts.  

Not only has Levine worked with students and other faculty members at the School to raise awareness for SaySo, but she’s helped the organization find additional donors and partners around the community, something that Coleman believes has strengthened the organization at a time when resources are desperately needed. 

“With people just having the awareness of SaySo, that brings in additional donors, or opportunities for resources or even employment opportunities, for people to say ‘Hey, we have this opportunity for young people, and we would like to know if SaySo young people would be interested’ … It has impacted SaySo in quite a few ways,” Coleman said.  

PHOTO: SaySo Young Adult Leadership Council (Courtesy Carmelita Coleman, SaySo executive director)