By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Imagine being out of money, out of gas and out of work, but you need a hot meal and a place to stay for the night.
Or you’re leaving an abusive relationship and looking for a safe space where you can find support.
Where do you turn for help?
Those are the types of situations University of Nebraska at Kearney social work majors faced Friday during an exercise that introduced the students to local resources and put them in the shoes of the people they’ll be serving in their careers.
Nine students in the senior social work seminar class participated in the scavenger hunt-type activity. Working in teams of three, they were presented with different scenarios, then asked to identify and visit an agency that could assist them.
Some were looking for help paying rent or applying for jobs. Others needed mental health services or programs that assist people with disabilities.
“One of the things we really believe in this profession is the idea of empathy and resource-finding,” said Nadine Stuehm, a senior lecturer and field placement coordinator in UNK’s Department of Social Work. “Our goal is to understand all the agencies well enough that we send people to the right place the first time so they can get the assistance they need.”
The UNK students, all seniors who graduate in December, learned about a variety of local services through the project, including many they were previously unaware of.
“A lot of services and resources go unnoticed,” said Britney Hicken, who was introduced to the Storehouse at Kearney eFree Church and Buffalo County Community Partners’ PhotoVoice program, which helps area youths develop a means of creative self-expression and constructive communication through photography.
Hicken, who plans to pursue a career in child welfare and family services, knows this type of activity will benefit her down the road.
“Social workers act as a resource for anyone in the community who needs help,” the Gothenburg native said. “As a social worker, I can’t provide someone with food, but I can find them a resource that can.”
Meredith Collins of Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska said it’s important for social work majors to learn about every local program and the services they provide, instead of focusing on a specific area.
“If they’re going to be working in a community, they need to know about all the resources that community has so they can better serve clients. Nobody has enough resources to meet all the needs, so we all work together,” said Collins, CEO of the nonprofit organization that provides education, employment, health, housing, nutrition, senior service and transportation programs in 27 counties in Nebraska and two in Kansas.
In addition to each team’s individual stops, the UNK students all gathered at the Crossroads Center homeless shelter, where they assisted at the thrift store, served lunch, chatted with residents and took a tour.
Alyssa Donahey, a UNK senior from Palmer, called it an eye-opening experience.
“It’s easy to be taught about these services, but you don’t fully understand how important your work is until you actually get out there and see how these services help people,” she said. “It changes your perspective on things.”
About 135 students are currently majoring in social work at UNK, making it one of the largest programs in the College of Arts and Sciences. Graduates, who complete a 400-hour internship before earning their bachelor’s degree, find jobs in many high-demand areas, including school social work, aging services, adoption and foster care, child welfare and family services, medical and mental health/clinical social work, hospice, residential treatment facilities and substance abuse.
“There are so many options you can choose from in social work,” said Donahey, who is currently interning with AseraCare Hospice in Kearney.