After earning a bachelor’s degree in digital media, Rivyann Blount produced stories about social issues such as poverty and immigration that affected vulnerable populations. But rather than write about people’s unfortunate circumstances, Blount felt the need to help them turn their lives around.
That is why in 2019, Blount started the Master of Social Work program at The University of Texas at El Paso.
“A lot of my (media) work was focused on the community, so I decided to work in something that would help me give back to the community in the best way possible,” said Blount, who earned her bachelor’s degree in digital marketing at The University of Texas at Dallas. “I realized that (social work) is where my heart is and it’s what I want to do. … The (digital marketing degree) was a stepping-stone to get here.”
Eager to make a difference, Blount applied for a new Community of Learning (CoL) initiative at the Opportunity Center for the Homeless (OC).
With support from the Daughters of Charity Mission and Ministry Inc. and the UTEP College of Health Sciences, the CoL offers graduate social work students enhanced case management training that is focused on the homeless population in El Paso.
Blount, Alexandra Van Mier and Rosanna Camarena were selected to participate in the program in July. Daniela Guerra will start in September. As the CoL’s graduate research assistants, they work to identify service priorities for clients of the Opportunity Center’s emergency shelter, transitional and permanent housing programs.
“I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to us at UTEP,” said Camarena, who graduated from UTEP with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Her project involves documenting different homeless populations through video and photography. Blount is based at the Opportunity Center’s Magoffin Safe Haven facility for men and women with mental disabilities. Van Mier will work with aging and frail individuals experiencing homelessness, and Guerra, a student in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Ph.D. program, will focus on research and grant writing opportunities.
“This is a great way to make connections and serve our community,” Camarena added. “At the OC, I want to engage with our community and see what the underserved go through and what they need. That will help me figure out what part of social work I want to go in.”
A Different Kind of Classroom
After cuts in federal funding led to a reduction in services at the Opportunity Center in 2014, the center partnered with UTEP’s Department of Social Work to provide educational opportunities to graduate students in the macro-level social work class. Students provide critical support to Opportunity Center staff while gaining hands-on experience in evidence-based practices used in homeless services.
In spring 2019, UTEP and the Opportunity Center launched the CoL to enable students to address homelessness through impactful practice, research and advocacy.
“The vision that we had is for the OC to become a teaching classroom for the students,” said John Martin, the center’s development director.
While researching grant opportunities, Martin said he has not found any other social work programs in the United States, aside from UTEP, that have incorporated a homeless shelter into their curriculum.
In addition to social work, students in UTEP’s Master of Rehabilitation Counseling program also provide job preparedness services to OC residents.
The Opportunity Center also accepts interns from El Paso Community College and from universities and colleges across the U.S.
UTEP students from nursing, pharmacy, social work, physical therapy, occupational therapy and clinical laboratory science also participate in the center’s H.O.P.E Health Fair organized by the University.
“This is much more intensive training,” Martin said. “The vast majority of our staff have experienced homelessness. We wanted the students to learn from them. However, we also wanted our staff to learn from our students. So it has always been intended to be a two-way experience.”
Putting Knowledge into Practice
Located in Downtown El Paso, the Opportunity Center is the largest homeless shelter system in West Texas and Southern New Mexico with two shelters – one for men and one for women – and seven residential centers for the elderly, mentally ill, veterans, families and other homeless populations.
In 2018, the center served more than 1,600 individuals experiencing homelessness.
Eva Moya, Ph.D., associate professor of social work, and the CoL’s co-principal investigator, said that Master of Social Work students are trained to provide emotional and mental health education and conduct psychoeducation activities to help clients understand the challenges of their mental health conditions. They also learn how to work with groups. All of these skills give students a better understanding of the services needed at the Opportunity Center.
During the spring semester, CoL graduate research assistants Perla Chaparro, Delia Dominguez and Leonardo Martinez worked with Opportunity Center case managers to identify what processes were working, what services were needed, and what community resources were available to help.
They talked about improving the center’s intake process, expanding internship opportunities, and overcoming barriers to accessing transportation and mental health services. Students also developed self-care strategies to help case managers mitigate burnout.
“I was really surprised to see how much (OC staff) were doing with so little – to see how much personal commitment went into their work,” said Martinez, who graduated from UTEP’s Master of Social Work program in May 2019. “This is the kind of experience that, as a graduate student, I expected to get out of the program: to take it out of the classroom and to be able to see how these organizations make things happened.”
Moya said CoL projects will be based on the Opportunity Center’s needs to improve the delivery of services to residents.
“This is a community environment where you learn, you practice, you have integration of assignments, you have direct services and you have engagement from multiple colleges, schools and community partners,” Moya said.
Amy Joyce Ponder, CoL’s project manager, said the Opportunity Center strives to provide students with the best learning experience possible.
“We want to have structure for the social work students,” Ponder said. “We want to ensure that they feel that they’re having a quality experience and to use all the knowledge that they’ve been gaining here and put it into practice.”