Reaching the community from home
A true community is one where people support each other, especially those in vulnerable positions. In a semester full of unexpected change, JCU Social Work students worked to identify how both professionals and community members could best support the people who need it most.
When social distancing became the new normal, many JCU Social Work students were unable to continue their placements. Since these students still needed to complete the practical component of the semester’s study, the JCU Social Work staff brainstormed and developed a solution: The Community Connectors Project (CCP).
“The project brought together like-minded people to research the impacts and response to COVID-19, and to provide a compilation of accurate information for members of the broader community,” says Jo Bentley-Davey, JCU Social Work Lecturer and leader of the Community Connectors Project.
Students unable to complete their placement could choose to join the Community Connectors Project. The students were split into groups that focused on specific projects and community demographics, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, disability and youth communities. The groups networked with existing organisations, such as Queensland Health and Mission Australia, to create resources including websites, info packages and practice guides that focused on the help available to different communities.
The project involved fortnightly meetings held via Zoom, in which students and staff came together to discuss topics, progress, theories and placement-relevant issues such as self-care.
Finola Rytkönen, a third-year Social Work student, was relieved at being able to complete her practical study but entered the project with uncertainty – mainly at having to complete 500 hours of field education alone at home in a project no one had done before.
“I had been looking forward to having face-to-face social work experience in an organisation, so the first few weeks of CCP were demanding because I had to get used to the routine of working in my home office space for 35 hours a week,” she says. “Nobody really knew exactly what the project would entail, so a lot of us were feeling uncertain at the beginning.”
However, it wasn’t long before Finola found her footing. “There was more direction for my individual and group projects as the weeks went by, so I felt more confident in being able to complete my hours.”
Research that could change lives
Part of Finola’s confidence came from the work that she accomplished with her group.
Finola’s group worked to develop a practice guide for future social work students and practicing health professionals to identify and assess domestic violence occurring among individuals or groups that used the service of those professionals. The end result was a 70-page resource that covered a broad range of topics around domestic violence – such as the gendered effects of public health crises like COVID-19 – and how health professionals could practically respond to the issue.
“My group developed the foundation for a wider project to push for a standardised domestic violence screening tool in Queensland and to advocate for a public health response to domestic violence,” Finola says.
A ‘standardised domestic violence screening tool’ is essentially a method of identification. This could be a list of questions that a nurse asks a patient that help to identify if the patient has experienced domestic violence. The list would be carefully devised by social work and health professionals and be relevant to as many experiences of domestic violence as possible.
The Community Connectors Project was designed to help groups within the community, as well as strengthen the skills of social work students through practical study.
“I had the chance to research topics relevant to many spheres of social work, like community and project development. I also learned the basics of analysing data and presenting it in written form, especially when we evaluated CCP members’ attitudes and experiences during placement.”
Finola’s new skills are outmatched by her passion for helping people. “This project helped me to see the way in which social work practice can fill gaps in society. It also sparked an interest in me about practical social work practice – the various levels of social work and how social workers can drive social change at all levels, including individual, community and national.”
The Community Connectors Project focused on the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the methods students used to identify the needs of specific community groups and the information they collated have value for future JCU Social Work students.
Thinking on the project’s future, Finola says that it holds significant potential because it has a framework in which groups and individuals are the experts of their own experiences and needs. Social Work students can use this framework to aid the process of reaching the goals of these communities.
“This project has limitless and far-reaching potential because anything is possible when people come together to collaborate and work together towards social justice.”
At the end of the Community Connectors Project and the completion of a practical component that once seemed daunting, Finola is both satisfied and hopeful.
“I feel that I was part of a wider social health project and that my contribution to this project was a step closer to achieving social justice and advocating for the rights of those who experience domestic and family violence.”