A Community in Need, a Community in Action
Binghamton’s social work program extends a lifeline of support to New Orleans.
On August 29, 2005, the first levees failed in New Orleans. Over the following days, Jennifer Marshall watched the news reports in horror as the extent of the death, damage and human suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina became terribly clear.
As director of field instruction for Binghamton’s brand-new master’s program in social work
, Marshall’s gut reaction was to fly down to New Orleans with a group of students and get to work, but it was too dangerous.
Even now, years after Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, many of the city’s most impoverished and vulnerable citizens are still without even the most basic services: electricity, water and sanitation. Marshall and her colleagues haven’t forgotten.
The social work program has joined efforts with an Ithaca, New York-based outreach group called Love Knows No Bounds, that has created an entirely new model for responding to natural disasters where one community reaches out to another.
From day one, part of the mission of the social work program at Binghamton was to build community with students, faculty, licensed social workers and community organizers. As director of Field Education, Marshall matches each student with local public and private non-profit agencies where they’ll work in year-long internships, two days a week, full-time.
With the creation of this new community of students, scholars and social workers, Binghamton was ready to reach out to its sister community in New Orleans, the hard-hit 7th Ward. Instead of focusing on one-time relief efforts — like building a home with Habitat for Humanity — Binghamton’s social work program would focus on providing long-term mental health support for the community’s residents.
In the spring of 2008, Marshall traveled to the 7th Ward with 17 graduate students, another MSW practitioner and a program alumnus. The first project was to work with youth who participated in a trauma support program.
“We provided venues for the children who experienced the hurricane — the levees breaking and the consequent aftermath — a place to talk about their feelings and their fears,” says Marshall, “and to begin to work with the psychological impact that all of this has had on them and continues to have on them.”
Another group of students paid visits to homebound seniors, some still without electricity or running water. As part of an HIV outreach initiative, many of the students delivered hygiene kits to homeless people living in sprawling tent cities, most of whom had never been homeless before the storm.
“The impact the trip had on the students was profound, to say the least,” says Marshall. “Many are committed in a very new way to dealing with the needs of people in New Orleans and to communities facing similar challenges.”
Marshall is in the process of collaborating with Saint John #5 Church, writing grants to establish a permanent support structure between Binghamton and the 7th Ward.
“Once you’ve been there and you’ve seen the need, you can’t ignore it. “Pastor Bruce Davenport and his wife Deborah, leaders in the 7th ward, along with innumerable members of their community have made us feel that despite the distance it takes to travel, we have gained an even deeper sense of community and connectedness,” says Marshall. “And they’re so appreciative of the smallest things. A very clear impact can be made in the efforts that the students and the program are putting forth.”