The Voice: Winter 2001

The Voice

Social work students act as advocates

Social work students by Sally Jongsma

A group of social work students deserve at least some of the credit for recent efforts to help residents of a Dordt-owned trailer park find new housing.

It began last fall after a lecture to social work students by Brian Walsh, a Christian Reformed chaplain at the University of Toronto. Speaking about homelessness, Walsh told students they didn't have to go to a large city to find homeless people. In class the next day, Professor Jim Vanderwoerd used the trailer park situation to make students think about how housing decisions get made, having them look at the difficulties residents of a trailer court owned by the college faced as they searched for other housing. Dordt officials had asked them to vacate the property by July of the next summer so the college could use the property for campus expansion.

The issue caught students' attention, and they immediately decided to gather information about the situation. Teams of two or three students met with top administrators at Dordt, the city manager, the trailer court manager, members of Amistad (a local Hispanic ministry group), and Tom Soerens, an assistant to President Carl Zylstra and a former missionary in Latin America. Student reactions to the information ranged from unconcerned to irate. So Vanderwoerd used the opportunity to help students understand social processes. The challenge, he said, was to harness their passion so they could see effective ways of resolving social problems.

The students began to organize a series of meetings to get more information for themselves and to share information with the involved parties. They invited residents of the trailer park, students, college officials, city officials, and the Siouxland Diaconal Conference.

“That in itself was a tremendous learning experience,” said Vanderwoerd. Students learned about strategizing for and planning meetings and about leading and facilitating group activities. They learned to adapt to talking through translators, to think on their feet, and to adjust to unpredictable situations.

“The students soon found that there weren't bad guys and good guys,” Vanderwoerd said. As they began to understand the issues, they also came to see what they could do as students. They decided that as short-term members of the community, their best contribution would be to raise awareness about immigration and the lack of low-cost housing and its implications for the entire community.

Their goal was accomplished, said Vanderwoerd. By the time they came back after the semester break, the diaconal conference, working with the college and people in the community, had taken on much of the work of finding housing for the Hispanic families.

“They planted a seed that grew,” said Vanderwoerd. He believes that had the students not started the discussions they did, the issue might have been more confrontational.

Many of the same students who began last fall working on the housing issue, looked at it this semester from another angle. For Social Work 312, Vanderwoerd required students to do a community analysis and intervention assignment. Each group worked with a community to try to understand that community, identify a social problem within it, and propose a solution to the problem.

Building on their history with the trailer park, they studied three communities: Sioux Center, Ireton (a small community that some thought might be able to take some trailers), and the trailer park. Students asked people in these communities some hard questions and came to understand and appreciate things about each community that they hadn't seen before.

“This was such a good way for students to connect book knowledge with real issues and to struggle with what it means to live Christianly in the world,” said Vanderwoerd. It was a wonderful opportunity to both learn about and contribute to social change.Senior Jill Van Voorst agreed. “The trailer court issue helped me see the reality of social work. Suddenly, it wasn't a case study. These were real people with a very real problem.”

Van Voorst added, “The biggest challenge was working through all sides of the issue to find a solution that would work best for everybody. The trailer courts gave us a chance to put our learning into action and to inspire in us a sense of the importance of social work.”

Emily Wilson expressed a similar sentiment. “Getting to know many of the people in the trailer court has given me added insight into the complexities and joys of helping others, as well as greater enthusiasm to continue working hard in learning the concepts of social work.”

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