Throughout the pandemic, people found ways to join together and serve their communities in creative ways. Steve Hicks School alums are among those making a difference during this time. Five alums share how they navigated the new normal while continuing to make a difference for their clients.
Annie Carroll, MSSW ‘09
Where: United States Airforce at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England
What: Licensed clinical social worker assigned to the 48th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron
Before COVID-19: Annie Carroll’s role as a military spouse led her to RAF Lakenheath, England, where she’s worked as a clinical social worker for almost a year. Carroll conducted population assessments of military members in their squadrons and used her findings to provide resources and make recommendations to leadership. Her recommendations included ways military members could be better supported through education, mental health resources, team building, spouse resiliency and more.
After COVID-19: Air Force missions continued throughout the pandemic. Their daily work and lifestyle routines were disrupted – dealing with schedule changes, having to wear masks, distancing themselves from their co-workers and avoiding public transportation. Airmen are already a long way from home, sometimes isolated and away from immediate family. The pandemic added concern to those who already had pre-existing stress, which can lead to behavioral health issues.
As an essential worker, Carroll joined an Air Force mental health team that served units within three U.S. military bases in Eastern England, to help Airmen deal with stress caused by the pandemic. Restrictions on traditional in-person mental health support led Carroll and her team to provide support in creative ways in addition to on-site support for military members.
Her team developed resources that were distributed across two Air Force bases in-person and via social media to help prevent Airmen from feeling socially isolated, encourage them to remain optimistic, manage anxiety and stress and give insight on healthy ways to grieve from a distance after losing a loved one.
Carroll’s team also created a video of base members discussing ways to manage relationships during social isolation and how they addressed current challenges. The video was live streamed on social media and used in town halls, where viewers could engage in discussion and get answers to their questions. Her team was able to reach more than 4500 people through these resources and videos.
Ryann Grindstaff, MSSW ‘14
Where: ThinkEast Apartments, Austin.
What: Service Coordinator
Before COVID-19: ThinkEast is a collaborative project between the Steve Hicks School and the Design Institute for Health that uses human-centered methodology to improve health services in apartment complexes in low-income communities. The resident-driven project actively seeks feedback about desired services and resources needed for its community.
As a service coordinator, Ryann Grindstaff has been providing one-on-one support and group services to residents at ThinkEast Apartments in East Austin in an effort to build rapport and assist with their personal needs. Her team hosted in-person events such as healthy living workshops, yoga sessions, coffee breaks, game nights, homework help, meet and greets and even a workshop about how to make cleaning supplies.
After COVID-19: ThinkEast’s goal to improve social-service coordination in affordable housing communities pivoted from in-person to more frequent virtual services as stay-at-home orders began in Austin in mid-March. Grindstaff’s role at that time was to assist with the virtual transition and develop a process to increase resident engagement in ways that didn’t rely on technology.
Many ThinkEast residents are elderly and don’t have much experience with technology. Other residents don’t have access to Wi-Fi, which makes engaging in virtual services hard. Grindstaff led community projects and activities that allowed residents to participate from home. For example, she delivered art supplies to residents and encouraged them to put art displays in their windows so kids could look for them as they walked around the complex.
When she was made aware of ThinkEast residents who didn’t have access to proper personal protective equipment, Grindstaff was able to put together and distribute 75 COVID-19 relief packages containing masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray. She started a school-supply initiative for student residents and is working with a local school to pair them with high-school honors students for tutoring.
While doing all of this, Grindstaff continued to provide online support to those who need it. Through a more accessible video conferencing app called Lifesize, she hosted virtual meditation, home scavenger hunts, YouTube Live cooking demos and a GED-prep program. Grindstaff said there was an increase in participation in one-on-one phone support and she’s been particularly impressed with the new wave of residents who became active in services after the pandemic.
Laura Gomez-Horton, BSW ‘96/MSSW ‘97
Where: Greater Austin YWCA
What: Clinical director
Before COVID-19: Laura Gomez-Horton, LCSW leads YWCA Greater Austin’s counseling and referral center, which offers quality, affordable, multi-lingual/multi-cultural counseling, support, and care-coordination for individuals, couples, families and groups. Services were provided in-person and also virtually on a limited basis for homebound clients.
After COVID-19: While keeping virtual fatigue in mind, YWCA Greater Austin’s therapists tried their best to stay connected with clients online. During telehealth sessions, staff incorporated grounding techniques such as various breathing exercises, checking in with the body, connecting to surroundings and more. Her team added additional sessions, spending more time for introductions, discussing concerns and limitations with technology, explaining YWCA’s electronic database portal, virtual system, and reviewing documents. These techniques were instilled to increase attendance, eliminate frustrations and ease technology-use for clients.
The nonprofit implemented initiatives to eliminate the loss of social connection among its employees by having more frequent staff meetings and open-door chat rooms. However, for some, the lack of accessibility to each other and not being able to walk into someone’s office created a sense of loss.
Gomez-Horton said the biggest challenge about the virtual transition has been lack of time and placing strict boundaries to separate work and home. She said remote work blurs time, in the sense that there are no transition periods between work and home. This makes individuals feel they need to tend to work demands while continuing to tend to homelife and vice versa.
Quote: “The best thing about the virtual transition is its accessibility to people who may have had transportation or mobility barriers. Because of the pandemic we also had to make quick decisions and commit to going paperless and go all electronic.”
Callison Keating, MSSW ‘15
Where: Austin Achieve Public Schools – Manor Campus
What: Middle school social worker
Before COVID-19: Callison Keating is on a team of social workers who work with 5th – 8th grade students enrolled in Austin Achieve Public Schools.
As the only mental health professional on her campus, Keating worked with a caseload of 10 students to provide their families with a variety of resources that could help them during financial emergencies such as rent, utilities, groceries and low-cost or free medical assistance. In addition, Keating conducted suicide-risk assessments and managed all mental health crises on campus.
Keating hosted weekly social and emotional learning groups with students who needed help with socialization, or needed to work on mindfulness, anger management and stress management techniques.
Students who had experienced suicidal ideation, self-harm or had previous hospitalizations participated in Keating’s eco-therapy group where they planted marigolds to take home and nurture. Keating said that the plants were a metaphor for self-care; as students watered their plants, they were to remind themselves of self-care and self-kindness.
After COVID-19: When Austin Achieve Public Schools transitioned to virtual learning, the administration was able to provide Chromebooks for every student to use at home. Those who didn’t have internet access were given free internet through Spectrum Telecommunications company and others were given mobile hotspots.
This not only allowed students to participate in virtual learning but also allowed Keating’s team to continue meeting with students individually. They made phone and video calls to stay connected with students and provide resources to their parents. They conducted COVID-19 processing groups on every grade level to discuss students’ feelings about the impact the pandemic had on their lives and educational experience. Students mostly enjoyed playing screen-share games and sharing viral videos during virtual sessions.
Keating and her team hosted a weekly stress-management series on YouTube called “Mental Health Mondays,” with an overarching theme of self-care and taking mindful walks. The videos included grounding skills such as identifying the five senses during every mindful walk.
Sydney Zuiker BSW, ‘15
Where: Crime Stoppers of Houston
What: Safe Community Program Manager and executive producer of The Balanced Voice Podcast
Before COVID-19: Sydney Zuiker manages the Safe Community Program at Crime Stoppers of Houston, a leading public safety organization that provides daily educational trainings for the greater Houston community on topics such as human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, cyber safety, elder care, substance use disorder, mental health and more.
Zuiker conducted in-person events and training in schools, community centers and businesses, and regularly met elected city officials. The Community Safe Program is the vessel that allows Crime Stoppers of Houston to directly reach parents, community members, non-school based law enforcement, and officials. As the program manager Zuiker oversees the overall growth, execution and development of programming.
Before the pandemic, a lot of Zuiker’s time was spent in meetings with community partners and organizations to work on critical public safety issues. When Zuiker wasn’t in meetings, she was presenting on all 22 public safety topics offered by Crime Stoppers.
After COVID-19: Increased internet use as a result of the pandemic led the world to become more dependent on technology for work and education in addition to socialization. In March, Zuiker assisted with Crime Stoppers’ immediate action to continue educating the community on public safety issues.
The non-profit launched Social Discussions While Social Distancing and Virtual Summer Programming, a series of discussions about cyber safety training for parents and educators, COVID-19 Shaming, Safe Gun Storage, Water Safety, Self Defense and more. In addition, the national unrest following the police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis led Crime Stoppers to launch a virtual leadership series to create open and honest conversations among the Black community, law enforcement and community leaders.
Crime Stoppers hosted innovative virtual events that were meaningful to its community including a movie night in partnership with IndieFlix, a virtual college safety summit and virtual presentations about all things cyber safety.
The virtual transition allowed Crime Stoppers to reach an audience larger than ever before. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization reached 7,331 people through their interactive Zoom presentations and more than 86,600 through Facebook Live.
Zuiker was recently named executive producer of Crime Stoppers’ The Balanced Voice Podcast, which showcases balanced discussions with national and local figures, offering take-away solutions on the most current topics. The podcast’s first season covers topics such as women’s empowerment, victim services, human trafficking, and racial reconciliation.
Posted by Montinique Monroe on Sept. 1, 2020.