Office of Public Affairs

USM Bachelor of Social Work Students Find Purposeful Work Amid the Pandemic

When USM partnered with Portland-based human services agency Preble Street to host a 50-bed temporary shelter inside the Portland campus’ Sullivan Gymnasium in late March, it was broadly lauded as a vital solution to de-densifying crowded shelters and curbing the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness.

Designated as a wellness shelter for carefully screened clients free of fever and other symptoms, Sullivan Gym’s nearly 16,000-square-foot floor provided clean, warm, and ample space to honor physical distancing guidelines promulgated by the Maine Centers for Disease Control. Preble Street staff found themselves with room to arrange cots more than six feet apart and even space enough to offer each client a large plastic bin to hold possessions.

What’s more, repurposing the fitness and recreation facility also provided two seniors in USM’s Bachelor of Social Work program an opportunity to continue moving from theory to practice.

Senior B.S.W. major Kahla Jusell, of Cape Cod, Mass., says she's "proud USM is being part of the solution" by offering Sullivan Gym as a temporary wellness shelter for people experiencing homelessness. (Photo by Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs)

Kahla Jusell, of Cape Cod, Mass., says she had nearly completed her program-required 480 hours of fieldwork with Preble Street when the pandemic caused colleges nationwide to send students home and finish the semester via remote learning. Through that field placement with Preble Street, Jusell says she gained experience working one-on-one with clients, helping them secure housing vouchers and Social Security benefits as well as food, clothing and medical care.

“Being an intern since August gave me a leg up on getting to know the community well and the individual needs of many people,” she says.

Around the time USM offered Sullivan Gym as a temporary wellness shelter, Preble Street offered Jusell the opportunity to shift from intern to per-diem employee. The transition, she says, helped her gain an even deeper appreciation for the plight of the people Preble Street serves and USM.

“Seeing the expressions on people’s faces coming into this huge, roomy shelter with a cot that’s raised off the floor … they’re so grateful. It really brought me to tears,” says Jusell. “I’m really proud to be a USM student right now. I’m proud that USM is being part of the solution.”

Through the end of May, Jusell will continue to help coordinate resources for people experiencing homelessness and ensure their basic needs are met in Sullivan Wellness Shelter. Come June, she will move closer to home to pursue a master’s in social work with a specialization in trauma and violence at Boston University’s Advanced Standing Clinical Program.

Asked if concerns for her own health cross her mind as she goes about her work, Jusell says she understands that being a direct service provider in the age of COVID-19 comes with some risk. But the needs of Preble Street clients and the challenges they face compel her to brush aside any worries about her own well-being.

“Many of the people we’re serving might otherwise sleep in Deering Park,” she says. “I’m more concerned about the remote possibility of being a silent carrier to our clients, than I am of contracting something from them. I am a healthy, able-bodied, young person. If I can provide relief to some coworkers who are immunocompromised, that’s my purpose right now. They are at higher risk than I am.”

Senior B.S.W. major Summer Becker of Topsham, Maine, says her decision to help Preble Street clients is driven by a sense of responsibility and compassion “for these people and their vulnerabilities.” (Photo by Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs)

Like Jusell, fellow senior bachelor of social work major Summer Becker of Topsham, Maine, also had ties to Preble Street before the pandemic sent her packing for home. Her 480-hour internship with Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative involved studying food insecurity among people experiencing hunger as well as helping to prepare and serve them meals.

Becker has yet to begin working at Sullivan Wellness Shelter, where USM food service provider Sodexo is feeding clients, but she anticipates joining Preble Street staff there in the coming weeks. In the meantime, she’s busy helping to prepare and serve some 300 meals a day at the Preble Street Resource Center Soup Kitchen in downtown Portland.

While stay-at-home orders may have slowed the pace of life elsewhere, Becker says the needs of those without a home haven’t diminished. The work of providing them with meals may continue apace, but social distancing — important as it is — has denied Becker the opportunity to enjoy one of the more satisfying parts of the job: sitting closely with clients as they eat to provide them with vital social sustenance.

“They now come to a walk-up plexiglass window at the back, where we serve them to-go meals,” she says. “Wearing face masks can create some communication challenges with some clients, too, but we’re still able to get some social interaction with them. That’s important because we may be the only meaningful social contact some of them have.”

With admission already secured, Becker will begin pursuing an M.S.W. in USM’s Advanced Standing in Social Work Program this fall, with plans to focus on “policy change, advocacy and systemics” after graduation. Until then, she says she wants to stay directly involved with “meeting people’s basic needs” — housing, food, clothing and health care.

For Becker, the opportunity to continue serving Preble Street clients means far more than just staying gainfully employed in a suddenly idle job market. Despite the heightened health risks that come with the role, she is driven by a sense of responsibility and compassion “for these people and their vulnerabilities.”

“I feel the need to do this work because if I don’t, there might not be somebody else who will,” Becker says. “Some of the clients I’m working with now I’ve been helping since I first met them last August. I would feel terribly guilty about leaving them when they need help the most.”

— Story by Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs