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Beating Odds at the Social Work Community Outreach Service

Dick Cook, Director and Ali-Sha Alleman, Assistant Director with the Social Work Community Outreach
Dick Cook, Director and Ali-Sha Alleman, Assistant Director with the Social Work Community Outreach
When the University of Maryland's School of Social Worked decided to think outside the traditional social worker training box and create the Social Work Community Outreach Service -- SWCOS --  in 1992, Director Dick Cook says, "other social work schools told us this new approach would never work."

Now, almost twenty years on, the skeptics have been silenced.

"We are the social work equivalent of a medical school teaching hospital," says Cook, who has led the school for the past fifteen years. "This is our model of practice education."

Since SWCOS began, approximately 900 social work students have had field placements through the program. Between 10 and 15 nonprofit agencies and community-based programs each year benefit from the students' hands-on work. Most are in Baltimore City, but placements are made throughout Maryland.

Explaining the uniqueness of SWCOS's approach, Cook notes that "We hire faculty-based field instructors who enable our students to work in areas of high need. Their primary responsibility is to supervise students, which enables them to work in areas that have not traditionally had social workers."

One of those students is Mary Couri, who came to the School of Social Work after three years in the Peace Corps. Her SWCOS placement is with the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation, where she spreads the word and seeks community input for the new farmers market in the West Baltimore MARC station parking lot.  

"I get to be creative and my voice is heard," Couri says. "In a traditional social work placement, I'd probably be in an office with limited hands-on experience."

The neighborhood around the MARC station is one of Baltimore's food deserts, where residents have limited access to healthy choices. The new market, which is open every Saturday morning from June through November, is changing that.

Couri's SWCOS placement puts her in the forefront of helping the neighborhood benefit from the market. "I went door-to-door to get the word out. I've also helped create our website and Facebook page, as well as conducted surveys to provide feedback to the market's managers."

"This has been a great way to continue my work from the Peace Corps," she continues. "I have the chance to work directly with the West Baltimore community and help residents meet their needs in ways that fit their culture."

Another student making a difference in Baltimore through SWCOS is Jeffrey Clark, who's enrolled in the school's Management and Community Organization (MACO) program. His placement is with the Community Assistance Network in East Baltimore, where he prepares tax returns and offers financial counseling to low-income people.

"I wanted to work on the community level," he says. "I plan to teach and want what I learn from my community work to inform my teaching experience."

"I'm developing a more intimate appreciation for the lives of low-income people," he continues. "I now have a better understanding of how to effectively work with people as they strive to make their life situations better."

The impact of SWCOS doesn't stop with student work. Many of its alumni are making a difference for people in neighborhoods and communities throughout Baltimore and Maryland.

Jennifer Schugam, who had her placement in 2001-02, is founding executive director of Feeding the People, a grassroots organization providing home-delivered meals, nutrition education, and ongoing support for low-income diabetics in Baltimore. She says that "as a social worker providing in-home mental health services for the chronically mentally ill, I have personally witnessed the devastating effects of diabetes on low-income people. I believe that Feeding the People will save lives."

Schugam also serves as an outreach worker for Main Street Mobile Treatment Associates in Northwest Baltimore and credits the SWCOS experience for her career path.

"My work has grown out of my placement. I got hands-on experience that enabled me to see what the community looks and feels like."

Another outcome of the SWCOS experience is a greater understanding of public policy and its impact on communities.

"I learned about public policy and social action," says Frank Patinella, who had SWCOS placements in 2000-01 and 2001-02. "My experience helped me see the connection between the community environment and needs of the students I was working with."

Patinella now works as Education Advocate for the ACLU of Maryland. In that role, he works to encourage the Maryland Legislature to provide full funding for the Thornton Commission's formula to increase resources for poorer school districts throughout the state.

No matter their placement or where they are now, SWCOS students and alumni draw inspiration from the school's stated values of "Innovation, Thinking Outside the Box, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Safe Risk-taking and Being a Self-starter."

As a result, almost twenty years after SWCOS's founding, the school and its alumni remain busy every day proving the initial doubters wrong and making a tangible difference in Baltimore and Maryland as a whole.

Paul Sturm facilitates the Baltimore Nonprofit Leaders Circles for executive directors and senior managers of nonprofit organizations. He also teaches at the College of Notre Dame and University of Baltimore. He lives downtown, where he feeds his addiction to crab cakes and Berger cookies.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- Dick Cook, Director, and Ali-Sha Alleman, Assistant Director, with the Social Work Community Outreach Service
- The Social Work Community Outreach Service
- The University of Maryland School of Social Work
- Dick Cook
- Ali-Sha Alleman
- The Social Work Community Outreach Service logo - Courtesy of SWCOS
- Decor at the Social Work Community Outreach Service

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