A core principle of social work is meeting people where they are. For Esther Jo Alcorn (MSSW ’09), that includes a parking garage.
Alcorn, a social worker in the emergency room of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, recently spent two hours sitting in a car with the wife of an elderly patient.
“On a normal day, I would have met with her in a hospital family room and provided emotional support and education surrounding her husband’s condition and care,” Alcorn says.
But since no visitors are permitted in the hospital now, Alcorn sat in the woman’s car and checked in by phone with the medical staff every 30 minutes, providing the woman with constant updates about her husband.
“This kept her aware, focused, and calm,” says Alcorn.
Every day, Alcorn is doing whatever she can to make sure patients and their family members are supported physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“With COVID-19, many of the cases are elderly couples who have been married for 40, 50, 60, or more years, and now one spouse is being told there are no visitors,” Alcorn says. “This is where the social worker is really essential to all involved.”
In the midst of the pandemic, alumni of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Social Work are finding new ways to provide essential human services to their communities across the state and around the country.
These are some of their stories.
As human services director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Sunshine Parker (MSSW ’06, JD ’14) oversees a staff of 70, including 30 social workers. Crisis or no crisis, the safety and welfare of the community are always the top priority. She sees the essential nature of social work defined every day.
“Our jobs haven’t changed because of the pandemic,” Parker says. “We don’t see a decrease in the number of kids who need to come into foster care, for example, or cases that have to be investigated. And like every other place in America, we’re dealing with the opioid epidemic. People are at home, with all their normal support systems gone. They may not be able to get to their meetings or access them online.”
Parker’s department has worked to supply people with free phone service. And the community has stepped up, offering rides and lending cell phones so neighbors can access mental health and other resources.
Social workers who cannot connect with clients by phone or internet are making in-person visits, wearing masks that Parker and a community group have made.
“Staff maintain six feet of distance during visits and have families step outside if they have to go into a home,” Parker says. “Families they visit are prescreened with questions developed by our hospital and public health staff.”
As both a trained social worker and attorney, Parker values careful preparation as much as the ability to quickly respond to unexpected circumstances.
Child Safety, 24/7
Ashlie Seibers (BSSW ’18) currently serves as a regional placement services specialist for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week she is working to ensure child safety during the pandemic.
“Child abuse and neglect have not stopped due to COVID-19, and neither has children entering the foster care system,” Seibers says. “We need foster parents in every county so our children can stay in the same schools and day cares and be near their families to minimize further trauma by being placed away from everything they know. While not everyone may be able to become a foster parent, I would encourage everyone to find their own ways to support the children and families in your communities.”
The pandemic has made finding foster homes even more challenging.
“With limited placement options, my job is to provide a holistic assessment of children and ensure they have a safe place to grow and play, while maintaining a sense of normalcy during this period of uncertainty.”
Seibers counts on social work skills to do her job each day.
“My job is very fast-paced and requires a high level of skill in the areas of critical thinking and effective communication,” she says.
Ready, Set, Pivot
These days, flexibility is the watchword for Jordan Frye (BSSW ’15, MSSW ’16).
“It is so necessary right now,” Frye says. “I’ve changed my system to adapt to the context about 10 times, and I’ve just got to be OK with that.”
As community schools resource coordinator for the Great Schools Partnership, Frye works with neighborhood groups, businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations to address barriers to student and community success. She is also an adjunct instructor in the College of Social Work.
The pandemic has shifted her work from community development to providing for direct needs.
Frye’s school worked with a local church food pantry to provide a distribution site for supplemental food and other essentials like diapers and school supplies.
“This emergency is exposing needs that already existed,” Frye says. “I’m seeing food insecurity due to the fact that schools are closed and limited access to technology to complete academic work.”
While organizing and training volunteers for the resource distribution center has presented its own challenges, Frye has relied on a concept she calls “holding the line” to keep moving forward to support the people in need around her.
“It’s a kind of assertiveness which is basic to social work,” she says. “I’ve had to do it every week when reminding people about effectively implementing safety protocols. It can be hard to hold the line, but I think of it as an act of compassion.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)
Stephanie Piper (865-974-5363, firstname.lastname@example.org)
This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary year. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.