Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Featuring Shannon Rudy, MSW ’18

Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Partnership
May-June 2017

Shannon Rudy, Syracuse, MSW 2018

“They have taught me more than I ever feel I could begin to teach them about the human connection and what it means to be a good person in the face of adversity.  I cannot wait to learn more!”

Part 1:  Elation, anxiety and what to pack 

Yesterday, I stood at the foot of my bed for what seemed like forever, staring at the open luggage with my personal belongings neatly packed away. I went through my list about a dozen times, making absolutely sure that I had everything I could need. Frustrated, I dumped the luggage and repacked everything again. How can I possibly be ready for this kind of opportunity?

It’s hard to coherently put my feelings about studying abroad in Malawi into a blog. I’m elated, nervous, anxious, while at the same time I’m not really feeling anything at all because it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I don’t think it will until I’m on that 14-hour flight across the Atlantic. On another note, I got sick this week, so I haven’t exactly had the chance to get too excited about anything. I hope this throat thing goes away by the time I get on the plane.

All these worries and trivial things to get anxious about make me laugh as I type this. I’m going to Africa! My worries about what clothes I’ve packed and what snacks I’ll bring or what I’ll do on the plane will be null and void. It doesn’t matter there. What matters is the work that will be put into empowering the lives of teachers, grandparents and the kiddos in Malawi. I’m so excited to meet them all, and I’m hoping they’ll like me.

Life will be so different for the next three weeks. I keep forging scenarios in my head of what it might be like, feel like, taste like, but I know there’s no possible way to know. This unknown is what makes me most nervous. Will I succeed in what I’m trying to do? Will the people benefit from our work? Will it last on both them and myself? How can I carry this experience with me for the rest of my life? How will I change? These are just a few of the hundreds of questions bouncing around my head, and I hope to answer a fraction of them by the time the wheels drop back onto the U.S pavement.

This will change my life forever, and I am so ready.

Part 2:  A case of the cankles, the beauty of Africa and “oh my gosh, the kids!”

I have been in Blantyre, Malawi for a week already, and there is so much to reflect on that I hardly know where to start and how to finish. Being in Africa has surpassed all expectations and has quieted the initial anxieties I felt before the journey here. The flight itself was excruciatingly long, but the swollen ankles and tired crankiness of myself and my cohort made the arrival worth it.

The drive to our lodgings gave me my first look at Africa, and how beautiful and vast it is. The mountains in the distance and little shops on the side of the streets welcomed me temporarily home as people waved back at me and my eagerness. If random strangers waved at locals in the States, the general feelings would be confusion, disinterest or probably annoyance. Every person I smiled or waved at here greeted me with a genuine smile and wave in return. I was honestly surprised!

We were all welcomed by the exceedingly friendly staff at Annie’s Lodge, with Ms. Pauline quickly trying to teach us Chichewa. “Wawa!”, “Mulibwanje?”, “Dzinalakondani?”. Hello! How are you? What’s your name? She is still a VERY patient teacher. We were brought to our rooms, completed with mosquito nets over the beds to protect from the bugs and mosquitoes.

The next day we met our drivers, who have continued to be incredibly patient, protective and wonderful to us  slightly-boisterous Americans. Charles, Japhet and Peter have become part of our little family, and their knowledge of Blantyre and the culture has helped deepen our own understanding and learning experience. They never seem to tire of all our questions!

The first few days in Malawi were so emotionally demanding and overwhelming. The first ride to MCM was physically rough and none of us were prepared for the experience. I wasn’t prepared for many things, especially the way the staff and students at MCM made me feel.

Phoebe (pictured below) was the first to meet us, and I think she looked as nervous as I felt, only probably worse considering there were 20 pairs of eager eyes boring into her! Phoebe must be the most gracious, kind woman I’ve ever met. The love for her work, community, and kids at MCM clearly shows, and I can only hope to retain a fraction of that passion for my own pursuits in life.

Prof Youjung Lee and Phoebe Kufeyani, MCM Social Work Director
Phoebe Kufeyani, MCM Social Work Director (right), shown here with Prof Youjung Lee (left)

After touring the facilities, we got to walk in on the classrooms and get our first glimpse of the students and teachers. The rooms, while small, were inviting and emanated a positive learning environment. The teachers were very welcoming as well and were excited to have us and introduce us to the kids.

Oh my goodness, the kids! I was not prepared at all for how instantly loving, trusting and excited they all were to meet us! They made posters and songs in welcome and blessings, yet I was the one who truly felt blessed. I was very surprised that small clusters of kids seemed to “choose” each of us, and the same groups have stuck with me ever since! They held my hand, took an abundance of pictures and videos with me, attempted to teach me Chichewa, and played any and every game they could with me.

I never felt so important to a person before, and I was so humbled and happy to meet them and learn from them. However, it was also very exhausting. They are definitely an energetic bunch! The physical exhaustion was closely aligned with mental and emotional exhaustion as well, partly from the jet lag and partially from the mere experience of it all.

The first couple days were village visits, and seeing where the kids lived was kind of bittersweet to me. On one hand, seeing the poverty and struggles of daily survival with their families and community broke my heart, I felt anguish for them. Yet interacting with them at the school and seeing how much love and kindness they have for others completely floored me. They have taught me more than I ever feel I could begin to teach them about the human connection and what it means to be a good person in the face of adversity. I cannot wait to learn more!

Part 3: Sex, beauty and the life-changing impact of kindness

Working with the Young Women’s Initiative, I realized that I had begun the work under the impression that young women in Malawi would be so much more culturally different than young women in the U.S. However, I found this to be untrue as I got to know the girls more. While some topics about womanhood and sexual education are considered taboo in this culture, I understand the reasoning behind that and the significance it holds on the girls attending MCM. For example, since MCM is a faith-based organization, abstinence is the primary focus in regard to sex education.

I struggled with this, especially since it is my personal belief that safe sex and preventive measures against pregnancy and STIs are crucial to young women’s education. Therefore, the service learning group working with the initiative could not teach these preventive tactics or discuss them in depth.

To promote safe sex in the culture emanates the idea of promiscuity. If a young woman attending MCM becomes pregnant, she is to leave the school. While I understand the reasoning behind this, I also find it frustrating to be unable to provide the knowledge and resources in possibly preventing that pregnancy to begin with.

Sex education and woman’s health are still relatively recent and controversial topics to openly have in the U.S. Even my own education consisted of scare tactics among the students, showing pictures of the worst diseases and encouraging abstinence. However, I feel that it is important and empowering to learn about our bodies and functions early in life, regardless of discomfort.

Despite inability to heavily focus on sex and health, I feel that the Young Women’s Initiative was a very inspiring group to work with. Chikondi was the group facilitator, and she was a wonderful asset to my own learning and experiences. She was very knowledgeable about what the girls were going through, and helped my group determine what topics we could and should not discuss.

One day we had a discussion on self-esteem and what that meant for all of us. While many of the girls said true beauty consisted of kindness, treating others well and being strong, they did not see themselves as beautiful based on physical features. This saddened me, but it sounded just like any girl their age ranging from 11-19.

“I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy.”

We had the girls take out a piece of paper, write their name at the top, and write one thing they loved about themselves. They then had to pass it to the person next to them so they could write what they loved about that person.

This was repeated multiple times until the papers were filled with positivity and what the women liked about each other. This moment was so empowering and I could see the joy it brought the girls to see themselves as others did: beautiful.

We had the girls repeat a mantra to say to themselves every morning; “I am smart, I am beautiful, I am worthy.” Each repetition of the verse grew louder and more confident, and I could feel nothing but pride in the love they had for each other and the gaining love for themselves.

Part 4: Lessons in termination, non-assumption and cultural competency

A week ago today I said goodbye to the staff at MCM and the kids I worked with. It was such an emotionally hard and exhausting day, and I could  feel the sadness of my classmates as they also said their goodbyes. That day was hardest for me when the car was pulling away, and I could see one of the little girls I was closest with crying and trying to hide it.

It broke my heart because she didn’t shed a single tear the entire day or even act bothered by my pending departure. This in itself taught me not to make assumptions about what people may be feeling or how/when they express those feelings. It was a lesson I will carry with me throughout my career, and a moment I will never forget. I wish I could have comforted her.

Termination became a focused theme throughout our time in Malawi, but I don’t think it became a realistic process until we were already gone. Professionals discuss the importance of terminating with clients from the beginning of work and service, in order for it to be less painful for both workers and clients at the end.

For me personally, I realized that I had put termination on the back burner of my mind because I was so consumed with the present work I was trying to do. I was thrown into a whirlwind of emotions, practices, relationships, culture change and experiences that I didn’t have time in the short 3-week period to truly think about and prepare for what happens at the end. I was engrossed in my busy schedule, debriefing, then sleep.

How could I possibly prepare to say goodbye to the people I’d grown to love? It helped to write and receive letters from those I grew close to and I think it also helped that the students we served were used to groups coming and going throughout the year. However, this fact didn’t make it hurt any less for me.  I think these hard lessons about termination will help me later in my professional development.

This experience was so unique in regard to client/worker relationship building, because the relationships grew instantly and intensely in such short span of time. I think that is what made it difficult for me in the end to part ways. This will not always be the case throughout my career, but now I know how important it is to take that time aside to work through the end with my clients.

It’s difficult to concisely describe all the ways in which I know this service learning experience has helped shape my personal and professional development. All nine social work competencies were practiced while in Malawi, something I could not even say happened in my last field placement for a whole year.

18891640_1316728695043045_491104959336792479_oI learned the utmost importance of cultural competency and sensitivity to different belief systems, as well as beginning to understand where I stand as a white American woman with privilege and opportunity.

Hopefully, I will be able to practice in ways that fully encompass all that I have learned, and how to use my privilege in ways that empower instead of oppress.

This learning opportunity was incredible in so many ways, and I can only hope to share a fraction of the experiences, emotions and work with others to inspire people to do the same.

“We say goodbye, goodbye, but not forever.”


Watch for more Moments from Malawi, sharing the first-hand experiences of Binghamton University student volunteers in the Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Program.


Social Work Department explores effects of grandparenting through research, workshops

Two recent journal articles about the challenges and opportunities confronting grandparents taking care of grandchildren highlight the passion of Youjung Lee, co-director of the Institute of Multigenerational Studies (IMS) and several Binghamton University co-authors.

Youjung Lee, assistant professor of social work at the College for Community and Public Affairs, photographed near the University Union, Friday, June 15, 2012.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.7 million grandparents have primary caretaker roles for their grandchildren in this country. By definition, children who are being taken care of by their grandparents have experienced a variety of trauma and stress that necessitated the atypical arrangement. Whether the cause is abuse, death, abandonment or incapacitation of the parents, the new nuclear family poses significant opportunities and challenges to all members.

Schools see greater behavior problems among children whose parents have been replaced by grandparents, and the older caretakers are not always prepared – both physically and emotionally – to handle their new charges. There may also be shame associated with admitting that they have “failed” to raise their own children well enough to avoid such a predicament.

But there are also significant benefits to both ends of the spectrum: Children in such circumstances can show amazing resiliency, avoiding the “toxic stress” that often comes with placement outside their immediate family.

Grandparent caregivers also embrace this new “second chance” at childrearing in better ways than they may have done with their own children. Thus, healing and growth can be achieved.

In the words of one grandparent, “I couldn’t imagine not doing it. They’re my life. They’re my reason to get up every day.”

Another said, “I try to give her more love than I did my own children.”

College for Community and Public Affairs assistant professor of

Social workers have critical roles to make these arrangements successful. For example, there are institutional barriers that need to be identified, negotiated or removed. Grandparents may not be aware of social services available to them as caregivers, or they may not (without assistance) gain the proper legal status to adequately represent their grandchildren.

Another role social workers can assume is to steer grandparents toward those educational, psychosocial and health services that do cater to older surrogate parents and help those services work collaboratively.

It is also important to have social work advocacy to promote institutional policies that recognize and alleviate the stresses on grandparents. At the university level, greater emphasis is needed for multi-faceted program that sensitizes and trains graduate students in education, social work and the sciences.

In order to work more collaboratively, to better understand and be responsive to grandparent-headed households, Binghamton University’s IMS sponsored a three-week science camp, a monthly math education program and an interdisciplinary family service project in 2014.

The project was meant to help grandparents better understand their grandchildren’s science and math curriculums so that they could engage with the children in positive ways at home. It was also intended to break some of the hierarchical silos that exist for graduate students to be more effective serving grandparents and their families.

Access the full research article, originally published in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships.

Visit the Institute for Multigenerational Studies or the Department of Social Work for more information about the community center and the educational program at Binghamton University.

March is National Social Work Month!

March is National Social Work Month!

This month, social workers around the country are celebrating the history and the future of their profession.

This year, social workers have extra cause for excitement: the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) turns 60 in 2015.

Founded in 1955 through the merger of seven organizations, the NASW is now the largest membership organization of social workers in the world.

But what do all of these social workers do?

These social workers serve individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities through public, non-profit, and private agencies. They work with children and with older adults. They help students at schools and workers through employee assistance programs. They provide care in hospitals, at nursing facilities, and through hospice. They work with those who have survived traumas, including domestic violence, armed conflict, and natural disasters. They work with those who seek to empower neighborhoods, to fight discrimination, and to advance human rights. They advocate with, and for, marginalized groups. They are service providers and researchers. They are policy makers and community organizers.

In the last six decades, social workers in the NASW have advocated with, and for, all Americans, including women; children; older adults; individuals of different abilities and racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds; and individuals who identify themselves as members of the LGBT community. They’ve been involved in campaigns that have led to voting rights, access to physical and mental healthcare, and funding for social services. They’ve responded to the needs of military personnel and their families; individuals with HIV/AIDS; and survivors of tragedies like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina.

The NASW provides for the advancement of social work professionals through opportunities for networking; support for licensure and continuing education; and the operation of various specialty divisions like the NASW Press, the NASW Legal Defense Fund, and the NASW Social Work Ethics and Law Institute. The organization also raises awareness about the social work profession, through efforts like the creation of National Social Work Month and the development of, which explores how the news and entertainment industries portray social workers and the issues social workers address.

To learn more about the history of the NASW and of social work, visit the interactive timeline on the NASW website. To learn more about the future of social work, check out the work of the students, faculty, and staff here in the Department of Social Work at the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) at Binghamton University.

I came to CCPA after earning a bachelor’s degree in integrative neuroscience through the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University. I’m now finishing the second year of the Master of Social Work (MSW)-Master of Public Administration (MPA) dual-degree program in CCPA. I’m often asked exactly what I’m going to do with this combination of educational experiences. I think I’ve got a lot of options.

By the time I graduate in the spring of 2016, I will have completed more than 25 courses in social work and public administration; three years in a graduate assistantship with Dr. Victoria Rizzo, Associate Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Social Work; and two field placements that will have afforded me more than 1,000 hours of professional experience. I spent last year with the Youth and Outreach Services team at Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca. In the fall, I’ll start working at United Health Services Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City, under the Manager of Social Work.

My classmates are providing clinical mental health services through agencies like the Binghamton University Counseling Center, the Lourdes Memorial Hospital Center for Mental Health, and the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Southern Tier. They’re working to help develop a system of community schools through the Broome County Promise Zone. They’re providing for older adults through the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education, which includes field placements with agencies like the Broome County Office for the Aging and the Rural Health Network. They’re working with those who have struggled with substance abuse at the Addiction Center of Broome County and with those who have survived domestic violence through RISE. They’re serving the community through organizations like Catholic Charities, Family & Children’s Society, and the United Way. The MSW program has field placement partnerships with more than 200 organizations, offices, and agencies across the Southern Tier and throughout the surrounding counties.

We learn from an incredible team of faculty and staff. Find out more about their research and service – in areas like trauma-informed practice, sexual assault prevention on college campuses, community-engaged schools, and healthcare – by checking out the Faculty and Staff section of the Department of Social Work website.

But, regardless of our past experiences, our current work, and our future plans, the students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Social Work are all united through the core values of the NASW: we believe in service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. We all want to “pave the way for change. “

Emily Tier
Bachelor of Science, Integrative Neuroscience, 2011
Master of Public Administration, expected 2016
Master of Social Work, expected 2016


It’s About the Journey not the Destination

Something that I have been trying to remind the second year graduate social work students that I teach is to enjoy this time in graduate school, as this program with their peers is a once in a life time experience. The students typically roll their eyes, groan and sigh as I say this. Especially now as they are halfway through the semester with less than 9 weeks until graduation. They talk about how their lives have been put on hold, the sacrifices that they have made to pursue this professional degree. I challenge them to look at the journey along the way, not just the end goal, and the destination of graduation. This parallels a lot with the Grief, Loss and Bereavement in Social Work Practice Elective which I am teaching this semester, and the years which I spent working in the hospice field of social work.

We are always in a hurry to get to the next thing, obtain the next goal, the next degree, the next job, publish the next article, move into the next house, finish the next semester, etc, are we forgetting to be present in the current moment? Consider the following…

“First I was dying to finish high school and start college. And then I was dying to finish college and start working. And then I was dying to marry and have children. And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school so I could return to work. And then I was dying to retire.
And now I am dying…

And suddenly I realize I forgot to live”.

– anonymous

We are all busy, we all have deadlines and due dates and bosses and families and are juggling a million things. But are we so busy that we cannot be present in the moment? I am as guilty as the next person. A skill which we teach social work students is to be present. While working with a client(s) be present, be with them be in that sacred space to help them. We teach this to students, but do we practice it ourselves? As you are reading this blog, how many other tabs do you have open, what else are you doing? When was the last time that you did one thing at a time?

This blog is cathartic for me to write in the present moment as I need to be reminded of being present and enjoying the journey myself. My time where I was 100% present was while I was running or practicing Baptiste Yoga. I recently got caught up training for a ½ marathon and I lost sight of my journey, running and practicing yoga for the cleansing and centering that it offered me. I got caught up in the destination, the training miles and the schedule of on days and off days and the pressure. I was not present. I am now in a cam walker boot, nursing a calf tear for the third time and I feel like my life is spiraling out of control because I have lost my center. It is time to readjust my journey and find another way to center myself. When I was on a healthier journey of centering and cleansing I had incorporated meditation into my life. It is time to incorporate meditation again.

Many patients who I have had the pleasure of working with as they have approached death under hospice care share that they have regrets. As they approach death they share that they wish that they had spent more time with family and friends, they wish that they had been more present. They wish that they had said the things that mattered. They wish that they hadn’t been so busy doing, rather than living. A book that the Grief, Loss and Bereavement in Social Work Practice read was The Four Things That Matter Most, by Dr. Ira Byock. I was pleased that the students took the time to slow down and read a non-text book. This books talks about telling those people in your life whom you care about, “I love you, thank you, please forgive me and I forgive you.” Many students reflected up how this book can be used not only in their professional but also personal lives.

What do you need to incorporate into your life in order to slow down and enjoy the journey? Are you living in the present, or are you focused on the destination? What might you be neglecting to reach your destination; health, family, friends, your true calling? Do those people who are important parts of your journey know that they are? If not take the time to tell them. I know that this takes time, start with 5 minutes and build on that slowly. You don’t want your life to be over before you truly lived it. I challenge you to reflect upon this and try something new, to be present with yourself and those you care about, they deserve it and so do you!

For those students graduating who are reading this, you have about 9 weeks left until graduation, breathe it in, and enjoy it! This is an experience that you will not get back, do not just wish it over! Tell someone whom you have met on this journey, “Thank you!” This will make you more mindful and centered as you move on to your new journey which lies ahead.

Sarah E. Hopkins, LMSW

Full Time Lecturer

Department of Social Work

Binghamton University

College of Community and Public Affairs

Drs. Bronstein and Blitz on the Malawi Children’s Mission

College of Community and Public Affairs Dean Laura Bronstein and Dr. Lisa Blitz, Assistant Professor of Social Work, spent their winter break working with children, many orphaned and living in extreme poverty, in partnership with the Malawi Children’s Mission. The MCM provides nutrition, education, healthcare, and emotional support to children near Blantyre, Malawi. Founded in 2007, director Ken Mpemba, and co-founders and board members Sean Robinson, and Binghamton native Steven Koffman (who accompanied Drs. Bronstein and Blitz on the trip) determined that the challenges in the rural villages of M’bwana, Jamali and Mwazama were significant. In response, they mobilized a team to develop a Center that supports local children by providing a daily food program, education, psychosocial support and medical care, including malaria and HIV/AIDS testing.

The feeding center started serving lunch to fifty children and has expanded to feed and provide after school activities for 150 children daily. In addition, MCM has now expanded to a school for pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade for 50 children, offering them educational opportunities not available at overcrowded local government schools, and provides after school educational enrichment for all children served by the feeding center. Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz went to see the conditions that the children are living in, and to perform an asset-based assessment in order to create opportunities for Binghamton University students and faculty to play an integral role in supporting MCM’s mission to promote bright futures of the children, their families, and their communities.

Dr. Bronstein discusses some of the challenges she experienced working with a particular family: “There was a one month old baby who cried for an hour straight. The mother, who looked to be very, very young, was unable to nurse the baby because she is HIV positive. There wasn’t any formula for the baby. They were attempting to feed the baby nsima, which is made from maize, though this is not optimal, and was not working. The family didn’t have any money for formula, so we gave her some and the use of a bike so that she could go buy formula. The only feeding bottle the family had to use was unsanitary, and we were able to purchase this young mother bottles and a bottle brush. It was incredibly unsettling to know that this baby was crying for an hour as a result of hunger. It was very difficult.” Another particularly difficult moment came when the team happened upon a woman in her 30s laying on a mat crying. The team stopped and asked a few questions, determining that the woman, who displayed symptoms of malaria, had traveled several miles by foot, sans shoes, to go to the hospital, where she was denied treatment because the hospital had run out of malaria testing kits. The team administered a home-testing kit for malaria and was able to treat the woman for the disease. Had they not been traveling in that area at that time, the woman may have died as a result of this treatable illness.

Besides poor housing, limited food and health care, other hardships faced by many of these families include the lack of electricity, which is only available in 9% of the country, and limited access to clean water. Dr. Bronstein discussed that though the number living in poverty is significant, there are those in the area who have more resources, including electricity and access to clean water, and these Malawians are able to promote community development for the poorer regions. However, due to horrific flooding in the January rainy season, even those who have more access and ability were at a disadvantage. The recent flood engulfed large areas under water and eroded the mud hut homes of many in the areas hardest hit. In the January 2015 floods, over 100,000 people were reported homeless and about 100 people were missing and presumed dead—swept away by the torrential rain and flash floods at rivers. Those in the urban area who had electricity were being told that it could take up to three months before the electricity will function again. The electrical problems also contributed to a water shutdown, and much of the metropolitan area of Blantyre was without running water for more than a week. This also raises the risk of infectious disease like cholera and malaria, as the result of a lack of clean drinking water and sewage contamination.

The problems are profound and need to be understood in the context of history and social justice concerns. But the problems are not the whole story of Malawi. To understand Malawi, Dr. Blitz emphasizes, it is important to see the truth of their national slogan as “the warm heart of Africa.” The generosity of spirit, the resiliency of culture, the strength of individuals and families were also evident. One young man, who has been connected to MCM since its inception and who is now finishing high school, is like 18 year old young men anywhere: vacillating between career ambitions in the broadcast field or a more practical route in nursing. Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz were the first university professors he had ever met, and he had many questions about college. The little kids had a blast playing “duck-duck-goose” and the middle-schoolers loved telling stories in call-and-response style about the clever but short-sighted hare who was repeatedly undone by the persistent and determined tortoise (some stories, it seems, are quite universal!).

Something that struck me when interviewing Dr. Bronstein about her time in Malawi is how important she feels the research is, not just because of what the impact could be, but in that she could play in role in that impact. Dr. Bronstein is a passionate researcher. When an academic and a researcher takes a position such as dean of a college, it can be empowering and rewarding to facilitate research opportunities for the faculty you work with, but often the demands of such a position preclude one’s ability to take on initiatives like this. Opportunities to go into the field have the potential to create a vision and a new way of partnering and increasing not only the visibility for the college and its dynamic programs, but to make a difference in the lives of people, the heart of what it means to be “CCPA.”

True to visionary form, Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz are in the early planning stages of developing an academic opportunity, in conjunction with the University of Malawi and MCM, that hopes to send transdisciplinary teams of students and faculty researchers into rural Malawi. Faculty and students from across Binghamton University are well positioned to collaborate among and with students and faculty from CCPA in order to create an asset-based community development assessment and to support the goals and vision of Malawians for their next generation of leaders. For the greater good of people on both continents.

Grandparents raising grandchildren in Broome County

Grandparents raising grandchildren is a population that is growing fast. They are important in sustaining healthy family systems, but the caregiving is demanding and requires that the older adults make significant shifts in the roles that they hold in their families. Grandparents struggle with high stress and they tend to be depressed than non-caregiving older adults. Furthermore, the upheaval from unexpectedly taking on parenting responsibilities may hinder positive aging. Unfortunately, however, grandparent-headed families’ access to and utilization of professional services are limited, and current social services do not meet their needs. For example, grandparents need information on grandparent rights, programs for their grandchildren, legal advocacy, and respite care. These services are often unavailable or, when they exist, the custodial grandparent may be unaware of their eligibility for these services.

To explore needs and experiences of grandparent-headed families, I talked to twenty two grandmothers and one grandfather in Broome County from 2012 to 2013. Of the 23 grandparents, twelve were White, ten were African American, and one was Hispanic. The mean age of the sample was 60 years old (range: 44-76), and the mean age of their grandchildren was 11 years old (range: 5-17). The median annual income of the grandparent-headed families was $40,560, but varied greatly, ranging from $12,500 to $150,000. Economic hardship was prevalent. Of the 23 grandparents, 15 reported family incomes below 150% of the poverty line.

While the stressors impacting grandparent headed families were wide ranging and often unique to a particular family situation, they tended to cluster into four areas: (a) grandparents’ health problems, (b) financial stress of the grandparent-headed families, (c) social isolation, and (d) fragmented support systems. In addition, in all but two cases, the grandparent gained custody of the grandchildren following highly stressful, and frequently, traumatic crises in the family. Circumstances under which the grandparents gained custody included the brutal murder of a grandchild’s mother (the daughter of the grandmother), profound abuse and neglect of the grandchildren by their biological parents, and severe domestic violence that was witnessed by the grandchildren. There were also indications that some families had endured years of highly stressful situations that culminated in the biological parents either losing custody through court order, or voluntarily surrendering the children when they realized they were not capable of parenting. Others stated that they took custody when the adult children’s mental illness interfered with their ability to adequately parent their children. In many cases, the children showed signs of emotional problems that the grandparents attributed to trauma related to the circumstances with the biological parents.

Despite the traumatic events the intergenerational families have experienced, the grandparents show signs of family resiliency that can promote health and growth. Grandparenting gave them the ability to learn from past child-rearing mistakes and improve parenting skills. The grandparents also enjoy loving, rewarding relationships with the grandchildren. For example, one stated, “You learn with your children what not to do with your grandchildren. You become more educated and have more wisdom about what you did as parents.” Another grandmother said, “I’m learning more now and I am finding out the mistakes I made with my daughter and I’m not making those mistakes again. The grandparents shared that raising their grandchildren positive influence their life. One said, “I’m healthier because of him, I have to get up and do stuff because of him, and I walk to school to pick him up so it’s a positive impact.” Another stated, “At my age I am healthier than I was before, I run up and down the stairs, I’m taking them to the movies, putting up the pool, doing things that keep me fit.”

From the interviews, I learned that the multigenerational impact of the trauma is clear and impacts each generation differently. Understanding the physiological nature of trauma and toxic stress reactions and focusing on strengths and resiliency factors are important in working with the grandparent-headed families. Moreover, in spite of the family trauma, the grandparents whom I talked worked hard to protect their grandchildren, nurture them, and provide the stable home life they need. Interventions for the older adults should include efforts to access resources and help custodial grandparents build a coherent support network. While the children may need care to ensure their stability and social emotional development, attention to the older adult’s development is important as well. Linking the normal development process of all generations to the process of healing from trauma can help reinforce positive growth and the development of healthy family systems.

Youjung Lee, Ph.D, LMSW
Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work
Director, Center for Family, School, and Community Partnerships
College of Community and Public Affairs
Binghamton University

The Broome County Promise Zone model: A Community and University Strategy

What do you get when you combine limited funding for full-time staff, college students searching for meaningful learning opportunities, and public schools facing increasing demands and budget constraints? A recipe for success to build a foundation on which to build a county-wide, university-assisted community school model! That is exactly the ingredients we used to build our model of service through Broome County Promise Zone where we take the privilege of connecting Binghamton University students to the important work we are doing with public schools in Broome County to meet the needs of children and their families.

I recently heard a speaker say that education is “like climbing a hill”. A quality education pushes students to achieve their academic and personal goals even when it feels like an uphill climb. Unfortunately, for many of students this hill can feel more like a mountain that seems impossible to climb. Although the aspiration may be the same, the mountain seems daunting and the hope of success a far off dream. Motivation soon dwindles and academic achievement seems like something for everyone else.

A community school brings the necessary tools for all students and their families together in the school to provide support and access that help to balance the challenges poverty and life barriers can bring. Optimizing access allows children to plan their life “around choice rather than circumstance” and gives families the support needed to help them become engaged and active in making choices rather than succumbing to defeat allowing circumstances to take the lead. Rather than perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of poverty, community schools help to align resources in the community and make the school a hub where educational, physical, emotional, and social needs are met. This shift can provide more options for success in work, school, and life. As the saying goes, “it take a village to raise a child”, we know it takes a community school to bring true equity and access to all students.

At Broome County Promise Zone we feel that the use of enthusiastic college students to infuse resources into schools and our agency makes perfect sense. Not only do our college interns bring new ideas and needed support to our public schools, they also provide a view on the work that helps a hard job stay fresh and new. The college students report a learning experience that could not happen in the classroom and a new appreciation for understanding cultural competency, intergenerational trauma, and systems change that has a lasting effect to be carried into their future life and careers. College interns not only serve to meet needed adult support for professional staff, they also serve as role models and mentors to our young participants as well as educators and advisers to their families.

What started as a logical placement for master level social work students as part of a required field placement has expanded to include undergraduate students across disciplines using passion and expertise in the prescribed field to further the work under Broome County Promise Zone. In addition to providing academic support and serving as mentors and role models, you might find a computer engineer helping us to build and implement a website design or one nursing student educating urban young people about asthma and ways to control symptoms while another educates parents about diabetes in a rural setting. Perhaps you might witness a student studying business and management working on a plan for marketing and branding our name so that our community knows and understands the work we are doing. Regardless of the area of interest, we work to fit future life goals to the assigned internship. With 40 – 60 interns a semester, there is plenty of opportunity to serve and even more opportunities to learn and grow together as we work to expand limited resources to maximum capacity while embedding the aspiration of educational experiences with the exciting opportunity to make a difference.

Luann Kida MA, LMSW, Community Schools Director

Broome County Promise Zone, Binghamton University, College of Community & Public Affairs