Social Work class partners with Open Doors to serve homeless population


By: Katherine Gentry
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: Open Doors shelter

Since 2014, students in professor Karen Myers’  SOWK 317 Skills for Generalist Social Work class have partnered with Open Doors, an organization located in Harrisonburg which provides shelter and support for the local homeless population. Through the partnership, students practice and enhance the skills they learn in class, as well as serve the community. 

The mutually beneficial partnership with Open Doors has been especially effective. Myers explained, “We’re very mindful of not overwhelming community agencies for good learning experiences. Open Doors is ideal because they are almost entirely run by volunteers and it gives students an opportunity to practice skills they learn in class and gain experience working with a population that social workers typically work with.” Instead of a permanent location, Open Doors is hosted by different faith communities each week. Volunteers are needed to help set up beds and tables, fill out intake surveys for first-time visitors, serve dinner and sit and talk with guests about their lives and goals. Social work students help to fill this need.

Before students volunteer at Open Doors, they receive training from Rachel Howdyshell, the executive director of Open Doors. At this training, she provides basic information about the local homeless population and explains the role Open Doors fulfills in the community. In class, Myers teaches students social work skills that they can use in a variety of professional settings, such as active listening. Students also learn about social work principles such as non-judgementalism and self-determination. Myers explained, “You might be working with someone who is making a choice different than you, so we discuss how we honor that difference and let them have a conversation that supports their self-efficacy and ability to make choices for themselves.”

PHOTO: Open Doors shelter

Senior social work student, Andrew Greco volunteered during his semester in SOWK317 and is now serving in a field placement to help manage all of the current SOWK317 volunteers.

Through volunteering at Open Doors, students learn how to engage with people and implement the social work principles and skills which they learn in class. Myers said, “It’s about being in that real life setting and knowing what it means to look someone in the eye and be non-judgmental and empathetic and make a connection with people. I think that’s something you can’t do as well when you’re in a simulation with a classmate.”  

In addition to applying social work skills, the partnership helps students to understand people who are homeless and gives the students a new perspective. Corrisa Malat, a social work student who has participated in this partnership explained, “After getting to know some of the people at Open Doors, my outlook on the homeless population has changed. When you see a homeless person on the side of the road begging for money, it is easy to apply negative stigmas and make assumptions. But instead of letting my mind go straight to that way of thinking, I now remember that the person I see on the side of the road has so much more to them than just the one image I am initially seeing. Ultimately, this experience has helped me break down my ‘single-story’ view of homelessness.” 

Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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