I clearly observed a renewed vigor in the African America students today. They were talking about setting examples for their children, and the need to be a role model in their communities. They asked me about our plans to begin community organizing in North Panola County of Mississippi--an impoverished area of the Delta where the life chances of young people are rapidly disappearing. Two students have been actively recruiting other students to work with us on beginning a presence in the community. The immediate community of Ole Miss benefits from volunteers and community efforts all the time, but I have been working toward expanding our efforts into the rural communities that have not been the recipient of as much student help. It is a wonderful partnership where students can learn and we can contribute to the community. We have been able to do activities in several near-by rural communities over the past few years, but our goal now is to have a long-term presence in a rural community in order to have a more effective impact.
This afternoon, students in the groups class went to one of the public housing communities (where we did work for 2 years before taking a break last spring) to initiate a children's safety education program. Our target system was children 5-10 years of age. They had done preliminary work of going door to door and handing out flyers and passing out parental permission slips. It was so wonderful to me to see the children I had worked with for 2 years, and how they have grown physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They were happy to see me as well, and many hugs were exchanged. We also had a few new children, escorted to the community room by their parents, whom we got to meet.
The sweetest thing was when one of the boys said, "I wish you would come back every Wednesday." We had been there 2-3 times a week, every semester for 2 years, and it has been hard for them to accept that we did not come back last spring. One of the biggest problems in doing community work is the lack of resources. It was a poignant reminder of how important nurturing and caring adults are in the lives of our children, and a reminder of why we do this work.
The social work students did such an awesome job and I was just smiling the whole time. They had planned well, and efficiently set up the room to divide the children by age-appropriate stages of development. Not all of them had seen the facility before today, so they were a bit in shock that it was not what they expected, but they quickly rallied and went to setting up the tables and chairs, getting their activities and supplies organized, and I swept the floor while they completed their tasks.
The children began to show up a few minutes before the appointed time and were so eager to participate. It is a reminder of the joy children have and how important it is for us to nurture and protect that joy so that they continue to experience that in the future. I was also gratified to see the joy and eagerness of the social work students as they engaged the children and interacted with them. Working with children is not everyone's cup of tea, but you would not have known if that were the case with these students: they were excellent in giving positive reinforcement to the children, praising and encouraging and nurturing them along. They clearly demonstrated mutual aid as they helped each other and reinforced each other to carry out their goals. Children need to be told that they are smart and capable and to hear good things about themselves. I loved how one student said repeatedly, "You are so smart! You know so much!" I loved how students listened to the children and tied in what they said with the objectives of the class. Children need to be able to take risks by sharing, and being encouraged along when it is not necessarily the 'right' answer. I loved watching the students help the children to demonstrate the skills as well as talk about them, and how they used all the styles of learning: they had visual, audio, and kinesthetic activities to match all the learning styles of children. I loved seeing them be flexible and adapt when we had some children come in half way through the program, and include them and adapt to their needs and the changes that produced in the system. I loved the concern for making sure the "little children" got home safely, and how they were able to identify strengths, contributions, and learning as we evaluated the outcome when the group completed. It was great to see the cohesion in the group and see that visually represented in taking a group picture.
Every time I see a group of students go produce such an outcome, it just makes me so hopeful for the future of this profession, this state, this nation, and this world. I believe in the social work students from the University of Mississippi, and one of the most meaningful events in my life has been the opportunity to teach here and to learn from the students here. Today was another great example of a group of future social workers who are ready to launch their careers, but most importantly, a group who will make a difference in the lives of the people with whom they work. I salute you, Riverside group 1!