Opening Eyes and Building Skills
By Don Bowman
WITH PROJECT SPROUT, STUDENT VOLUNTEERS REACH OUT TO HOMELESS CHILDREN
In the field, Radford University students get valuable experience, often hard-earned.
Project Sprout is a program to empower homeless or transient families with children up to 4 years old who are not enrolled in school. In the process, future health care and human services professionals from Radford University get valuable field experience.
Corey Cassidy, associate dean of the Waldron College of Health and Human Services (WCHHS), leads the effort composed of volunteer teams of graduate and undergraduate students who visit with families in neutral sites such as shelters, libraries, public parks or temporary lodgings.
As advocates, the teams talk with the families about their children’s communication skills and nutrition, as well as cognitive, physical, social/emotional and language development. They deliver bright red drawstring bags with age-appropriate toys and books to break the ice and demonstrate activities that address developmental milestones with the families.
In 2017, Project Sprout partnered for the first time with both Project Hope and the New River Valley Head Start to expand its reach. Historically, Project Sprout connects with 10-12 families annually; the trained advocates can work with 25 families. Radford’s Scholar-Citizen Initiative has supported Project Sprout since its inception in 2012 as an extracurricular project.
“The experience has to be a real eye-opener for Radford University students to the conditions of people who are spending so much time and energy just trying to survive,” said Aline Brinckman, foster care and homeless liaison with Montgomery County Schools and project coordinator for Project Hope New River Valley. “They help us to be a main provider for these homeless children, a population who are often overlooked at a critical stage of their lives.”
In 2017, a new cadre of student volunteers completed training and joined experienced advocates to enhance their own human service skills and experience and prepare for the community service initiative. In the program’s first five years, volunteer student advocates have come from programs such as communication sciences and disorders (COSD), nursing, psychology, early childhood education, nutrition and dietetics, counseling education and sociology.
Graduate Coordinator Alyssa Ardman, a secondyear COSD graduate student from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and independent study undergraduate coordinator Katelyn Weaver, a senior COSD major from Madison County, Virginia, currently assist Cassidy in operating the program.
There are so many factors I can’t control, but I want to be a person who is willing to help and can do it."
Each visit includes a two-person team, one who reviews available resources and important child developmental milestones with parents and one who gets to know the children and models how to use the toys and books.
In her first visit, Weaver confronted a chaotic environment that she said was a far cry from the home in which she grew up. She said knew she had to overcome the shock of the glaring contrast.
“It became real for me. I had get to past my assumptions to provide resources and knowledge of opportunities available. How I feel is less important than the way I make my clients feel,” Weaver said. “There are so many factors I can’t control, but I want to be a person who is willing to help and can do it.”
Ardman is the program’s liaison with Project Hope, the local affiliate of a statewide initiative to serve as a bridge to families and children in dire economic circumstances. She arranges the meetings with families who are referred to the program by Brinckman.
Ardman determinedly tries to connect with transient families without a permanent home address. The only means of contact are cellphones, which may or may not be connected, due to financial constraints.
“The role of an advocate is to coach the caregivers and to provide them with encouragement and support,” Ardman said.
Cassidy considers the encounters one more valuable opportunity for Radford University students to work in the field and tighten the bonds between colleagues and clients.
“It is a dip-a-toe experience versus a full intervention,” Cassidy said. “We should all be exposed to the needs of those we serve who are in distinct and vulnerable situations. Experiencing the impact they have on families is fundamental to the students eventually becoming effective health-care and human service providers.”