Cristen Seiders, MSW '17

Cristen Seiders knew that one day she would help to empower others. Learn more about how she is making a difference at the Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center.

I have always had a passion for people. I knew that, one day, I wanted to work in a position where I could help empower others, propelling them to fully discover their worth and live out their purpose. Upon my senior year of high school, I discovered the ongoing devastation known as human trafficking. And the day I discovered this modern day slavery, I knew I was never going to be able to carry on with my daily life again without taking action. This passion began to drive my goals, my time, and led me to complete a graduate degree in social work at the University of Illinois.

While finishing my MSW, I completed my internship at the Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center located in Decatur, Illinois and was hired on directly afterwards as a full-time counselor. I recognize that human trafficking and sexual assault contain much overlap, and this agency has been such a welcoming and empowering environment that it just seemed like a perfect fit.

Growing Strong provides many services to survivors of sexual assault along with their significant others. These services include individual and group counseling, legal advocacy, medical advocacy at hospitals, case management, and a 24-hour crisis hotline.

One of the most challenging parts of the job is learning how to truly be client-centered. When working with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, as a therapist, you may not always agree with the choices they make. But, at our center, we meet the client right where they are at. This means finding a way to support them regardless of their choices.

The University of Illinois School of Social Work helped prepare me for my career by helping me cultivate a skill-set for working with survivors of trauma. They assisted me in researching best practices, helping me better understand the wide-ranging effects of trauma, and tailored class examples to the populations I was passionate about. In addition, the social work teaching staff took the time to better understand where we were headed in our careers and assisted us in whatever ways possible to connect us to our futures.

One of my greatest accomplishments since graduating the program has been the opportunity to direct and lead A21’s Walk for Freedom in Springfield, Illinois. The A21 Campaign is a worldwide organization fighting human trafficking through intervention, aftercare, and prevention. The Walk for Freedom was a global awareness event for human trafficking where community members were able to gather together to bring attention to this issue. This is the first year we were able to bring the walk to Springfield, Illinois. I decided to bring the walk to Springfield because I recognize that this is not only an international issue but one that is happening right here locally. I think it’s so important to allow others recognize the importance of raising your voice regardless of your age or experience. And when we take away that fear, we will be able to far surpass our goals.

Based on my experiences, the one thing I wish everyone knew about sexual assault was the importance of supporting survivors. Believe them! Regardless of your own biases or opinions, the initial support of others is critical a survivor’s healing journey. Many times, I think it’s easy to live in a world where we don’t want to believe that sexual assault is happening on a daily basis. But, in reality, the statistics say that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18. That’s a lot of people! This means the rate at which individuals are lying about this issue is extremely low. There are so many more negative barriers for survivors to come forward than positive ones. Whether this be due to fear, shame, normalcy, mental health, or the like, when someone speaks out about this, support them. Don’t shame them. We need more people lifting each other up in our world. It’s not really our job to decide who is honest or lying about something. And, ultimately, I hope that we can all rally together to give these survivors the encouragement and support they need and deserve. Help them embrace their voice!

– Cristen Seiders, MSW ’17

Natonja Wells, MSW Student

MSW student, Natonja Wells is pursuing her second master's degree. Learn more about her current job as an Academic Coach for the DIA and her passion for social work.

Q: Describe your duties as an Academic Coach for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.

A: I provide academic support to student-athletes across all sports who are at-risk or have diagnosed learning disabilities/ADHD. Academic support includes working with student-athletes in areas such as study strategies, time management, organization, navigating the writing process, assignment completion, and generalized academic skill building. I also work to fostering a positive perspective on learning and academic success. In addition to working closely with student-athletes, I work with the team Learning Specialists to create the most effective plan for each student.

Q: What do you most enjoy about this job?

A: There are a few things I enjoy most. First, I love to watch students’ progression of confidence over time. Some students, especially freshman, might lack confidence at the beginning of a school year, so it’s great to witness them begin to believe more in themselves and their work as they practice academic skill building over time. Other things I enjoy are building relationships with the student-athletes, and being able to cheer them on when I see them succeeding both academically and athletically.

Q: What drew you to the field of Social Work?

A: My desire to help others succeed lead me to the field of social work. I always knew I wanted to take on a helping profession, but it wasn’t until I took a course in crisis intervention that I realized social work was for me. Since then I have realized that I want to be a positive role model for students. I also want to be a person they can lean on for support, whether that be help with organizing homework tasks, help figuring out how to get to school daily, or help figuring out how to accommodate a specific learning disability. Another reason I want to be a social worker is because I believe African American youth need social workers, especially in schools, who look like them and can potentially relate to them.

Q: How do you feel this job will prepare you for your upcoming internship and as a professional social worker?

A: My position as an Academic Coach is preparing me for my upcoming internship by giving me the opportunity to work with different kinds of students. I’m learning that each student is different, and therefore requires a different amount of support. I’m also learning how to collaborate with Learning Specialist (who might be more like teachers or guidance counselors in an elementary/high school setting) in order to determine the best ways to assist each student.

Q: Can you tell us one fact about yourself that someone might not know?

A: I am currently enrolled at the University of Illinois, working on my second master’s degree. My first was a M.A. of Integrative Studies earned from Northern Kentucky University in 2015. While obtaining that degree I studied communication, organizational psychology, and social work. It was in that program where I took my first courses in social work.

Q: What is your favorite experience at the School of Social Work?

A: My favorite thing about being enrolled in the school of social work is learning from the experiences of my professors, especially because many of them are still working in the field of social work. Their examples are relatable and mirror current social climate. I enjoy hearing my professors discuss things like the election or recent school shootings and how those very real things effect their workplaces and the people they serve.

Grace Mitchell, MSW '79

Grace Mitchell has dedicated her life's work to assisting youth, and advocating for families in the local community. Learn how she continues to make a difference, years after her retirement.

Grace’s Background:

“I moved to Urbana-Champaign in 1978 from Baltimore, Maryland, where I was raised in the McCollum Homes housing projects with my grandmother. As a single parent and welfare recipient, I struggled to raise my daughter and survive the vicious circle of poverty. I was actively involved in working with the adolescents in the community, encouraging them to stay in school as a means of proving to themselves and others that they could do it and make something of themselves.

It was not until the social worker for the housing development told me that I really had the potential to one day become a social worker. Of course, I did not really think I could go to college, since doing hair was my claim to fame. I went on, with the assistance of Ms. Maude Parker, the housing authority social worker and enrolled at Morgan State University, where I obtained my undergraduate degree in social work. That journey was not easy, since I had graduated from high school 14 years earlier. However, with the grace of God and his guidance, I made it, graduating in the top 5% of the graduating class of 962 student. As a result of my accomplishments, I was awarded a fellowship to attend the University of Illinois and the work in Champaign County begins.”

Q&A’s with Grace:

1) What prompted you to take on the Executive Director role at Family Advocacy in Champaign County?

“After retiring from the Urbana School District after 34 years of service, I began working at the Director of Family Advocacy in Champaign County (FACC). My passion is helping youth and families and have been doing so for over 5 years at FACC.”

2) Can you tell us a bit about the programming you developed to foster healthy relationships between parents and children who are in the child welfare system?

“The programs used at FACC include The Family Table/Parent Café groups, individual and group parenting skills training, Life skills training, which includes financial literacy. We also offer Anger Management groups for teens and adults, as well as counseling and parent/teen relationship sessions. One of the many services provided at FACC is 3rd Party and Supervised visit for parents whose children are either in foster care or with relatives. This allows parents to develop and maintain the bonds and relationships that they have with their children.”

3) What challenges do you face on a daily basis?

“The major challenge FACC is faced with deals with funding. However, FACC has managed to weather the storm during the state’s budget crisis. FACC continues to seek funding which will enable the agency to continue to provide services for the Champaign-Urbana community.”

4) How did your experiences at the University of Illinois School of Social Work help prepare you for your career?

“Being an older student and a once a part of the population that I would be working with, the U of I enhanced those skills learned and helped me incorporate the skills learned into practice.”

5) In your experiences, working with ILLINOIS Social Work interns, how have our students made a difference?

“Student interns from the School of Social Work as well as other departments at the U of I have been engaged in developing programs and projects that FACC continues to use in serving clients. Examples: developing curriculum (grad students), developing an intern handbook & manual (undergrads), updating our resource guide for the C-U area (grad students), developing an evaluation tool to be used by clients (undergrad), and developing a grant portfolio of grants available to social service agencies/programs (grad student).”

6) What accomplishment are you most proud of?

“The accomplishment I am most proud of is working closely with the community, courts, and other service providers in making FACC a viable and highly sought out resource in the community. Prior to my taking on the Executive Director position, FACC was having a difficult time in networking with other service providers. However, FACC is now recognized and services have proven to be beneficial to clients served.”


Grace received the Outstanding Field Instructor award from the University of Illinois School of Social Work in 2016.

In April, 2017, she received the “Heart of Gold” award from the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois.


“Grace has been an invaluable Field Instructor for both BSW and MSW students at the School of Social Work. She demonstrates the values at the very core of social work and is a tireless advocate for children and families. Under her guidance and encouragement, students flourish and develop into confident and competent social workers.” -Mary Maurer, LCSW, Assistant Dean for Field Education, Director MSW Field Education, Clinical Associate Professor

 

Meghan Rewers, MSW '10

Meghan Rewers, LCSW, Executive Director for Crisis Nursery of Effingham County, shares how her experiences at the School of Social Work helped prepare her to meet the needs of her southern Illinois community.

Background:

I attended the Eastern Illinois University from 2004-2008 and obtained my Bachelor’s in Family and Consumer Sciences.  I then attended the University of Illinois School of Social Work Master’s program from 2008-2010.  It was through that program that I was introduced to the Crisis Nursery in Urbana.  I began as a volunteer for a few months and then applied for a childcare worker position so I could learn more about the Nursery and spend more time working with children in the program.  I fell completely head over heels in love with everything about their program and the impact it had made on the C-U community in its’ 30 years of operation.  While working for Crisis Nursery, I couldn’t help thinking how amazing this service would be to have available in southern Illinois.  As life would have it, in 2012 my husband went back to school at Eastern Illinois University and we moved back to my hometown of Effingham, IL to move closer to family as we thought about starting our own.  I took a great position at our local behavioral health center, Heartland Human Services as an Outpatient Therapist.  While there I took my licensing exam and received my LCSW.  A little over a year later I took another wonderful opportunity at The Wellness Loft, a private counseling agency.  While working there I helped with Redeploy Illinois, which is a grant that supports a diversion program called Problem Solving Court in our area.  At this point in my career, I was searching for diverse experiences and was certainly blessed with several great opportunities, but I think in my heart I knew I wanted to land within a program like Crisis Nursery.  I had no idea that would come to fruition in the form of starting a completely new program in our area!  In 2015 the grant I had been working with was cut to part-time and now I had a very flexible schedule.  It was the kind of schedule every new mom dreams about, and I did very much enjoy it.  I finally took the leap that had been on my heart for several years.  On September 17, 2015 I invited 10 local professionals to come join me to hear about a vision of what I thought would be a huge support to families and children in our community, later to be named the Crisis Nursery of Effingham County.  From that small first meeting we formed our core Board of Directors and in July of 2016 our Directors voted to appoint me to be the Executive Director for Crisis Nursery of Effingham County, a role I was completely and utterly overjoyed to take on.  I was tasked with the coordination of a building-wide renovation, hiring and training our Prevention Care Staff and completing all necessary requirements to secure our permit and license to operate a Crisis Nursery facility.  On March 10, 2017 we officially opened our doors and began bringing Crisis Nursery’s mission to life in Effingham County.

Q&A’s


How did you become involved in the creation of Crisis Nursery in Effingham?

It was my experience from Urbana’s Nursery that inspired me to spread the mission of Crisis Nursery and continue to be involved after moving away from C-U.  After our initial steering meeting in September 2015 and the incredible response I witnessed from that, I was inspired to keep moving forward to see how far we could take this project.  My initial goal was to begin a discussion for the need in our area, but what happened was something more.  From that day, this project took on a life of its’ own.

What challenges did you face?

When we began we had a great team of people, our Board of Directors and a vision for what we wanted to accomplish.  Our Board of Directors discussed donating money to buy stamps so we could mail out brochures.  So, if that tells you anything, I feel like we faced ALL the challenges in the world, but that’s the magical thing with our mission, it brings people and communities together.

I remember thinking, “there is no way we’ll find a building through donation,”…and then someone did.  The Family Life Center’s Board, graciously donated the building they used for the Silk Purse Thrift Store that supports their program.  Our Nursery’s Board of Directors took on the renovation of our building head on.  Each challenge we faced was met with someone that had the know-how or a connection to someone that could help us with different things.

I also remember talking with Stephanie Record, the Executive Director of the Crisis Nursery in Urbana, about a strategy in presenting the idea of a partnership with our local hospital, HSHS St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.  I felt like at the time that was a long shot too, until I met with their President and CEO, Theresa Rutherford, Chief Nursing Officer, Kelly Sager and Divisional Director for Marketing, Terriann Tharp.  Along with the help of an amazing local pediatrician, Dr. Colleen Bingham, we presented to these core group of leaders at St. Anthony’s our vision, our needs and our goals for this project.  Theresa, Kelly, Terriann went above and beyond to help us secure our largest partnership with St. Anthony’s which made the impossible, possible.  Thanks to the work and support of these women, Crisis Nursery of Effingham County turned into a reality for our community.  When people believe in something, anything is possible.

Is this establishment related to the Champaign Nursery?

Crisis Nursery of Effingham County is an independent program.  However, without Stephanie Record and her team’s time, support and resources, we could not have accomplished what we were able to do in such a short amount of time.  Each of the Executive Directors at all of the Crisis Nurseries around IL were a huge support and resource to us as we put together our program.  They answered countless emails and phone calls as we were digging into our licensing and everyone was willing to share experiences and helpful information with me along the way.

How did your experiences at the University of Illinois School of Social Work help prepare you for this endeavor?

I loved that the School of Social Work program promotes community service as a part of every student’s experience.  Without that component, I most likely would have never been introduced to Crisis Nursery in Urbana and wouldn’t be answering this question.  That one simple connection, completely changed my life.

For me, the most advantageous part of the MSW program was how multifaceted each program track is.  I chose to study School Social Work, and while that is where my training was focused, I also received education in all areas of our field, which I have been able to draw upon and use in my different career experiences.  Entering into the real world was terrifying, and when it came time to graduate I had no idea if I was prepared.  After almost 10 years I can tell you with confidence this program prepared me more than I ever knew at the time for working as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  The structure and content of the MSW program was current, engaging and educational.  I can’t say enough great things about all of the professors, advisers and administrators for the School of Social Work.

What are you most proud of regarding this accomplishment?

This project brought people together to make our Nursery possible  and everyday we continue to feel that support as we work to meet the needs of our community.  There are no words to describe moments when people showed up and made things happen here.  There are so many stories of incredible generosity and compassion and those acts continue to live on through our services each day.  In volunteers alone, we’ve met over 500 individuals of all ages that have been a part of creating our space here.  That doesn’t include the people that have donated to our program or those that simply share our mission, needs and services with others.

I am most proud that, the way Crisis Nursery of Effingham County brought people together to invest in our community’s future and families that may cross our path near and far.  This entire project has been a genuine labor of love and is remarkably special to be a part of right here in my home town.

How is Crisis Nursery making an impact?

Since our opening on March 10, 2017 we have provided care to 64 unduplicated children, over 500 admissions for care, and provided over 4,000 hours of care to children birth through six  years of age.  Additionally we’ve given out over 700 basic need items such as diapers or formula to families in need.  As we continue to operate in Effingham over the next year, we are excited to get to know the needs here and grow to accommodate them.

These are really exciting numbers to see for our Nursery right out of the gate and people sure love to see these numbers.  However, Crisis Nursery is not successful based on the number of children served or hours of care provided.  Crisis Nursery is much more than that.  When families use our services, they add an additional support to their support system.  For some families we are a life-line and one of their only supports as they raise their families.  For others, we are here for unplanned situations families would have never thought to find themselves in.  We keep our ratios of children to adults low, so when a child comes through our doors they are able to receive one-on-one care and attention as we identify their unique needs and get to know them.  These strategies are deliberate, as when families and children are stressed or in an immediate crisis, they are at high-risk for life long impacts.  Our care and services are meant to act as a buffer and promote healing for children and families from the moment they walk through our doors.  To me, our program and the care our Prevention Care Staff give to the children and families we see, is the greatest impact of all.

Eric Powell, Mental Health Concentration, Class of 2015

“As a part-time MSW student who was working full-time, I knew that I would face a number of unique challenges and obstacles. I was worried that I may not receive the same attention or care because I was not as visible or present as the full-time students. However, my fears quickly subsided as I began to experience firsthand just how much the faculty and staff cares for their students. I never felt forgotten or left behind, as the staff made me feel not only comfortable but also at home. I am currently halfway through my MSW internship, and the education I received has been invaluable, using that knowledge each and every day. To all those within the School of Social Work who have helped and supported me along the way, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Brianna Malin, Class of 2016

“I had always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up because I wanted to make an impact in others’ lives. When I started college, I soon realized that my life dream to help young people would take on new directions. As I began to take classes at University of Illinois, a new path — social work — could give me opportunities to help students and young adults grow as individuals, even beyond a classroom setting. I decided to apply to the School of Social Work, which opened up a new world to me.

With the smaller staff to student ratio, I have felt more valued in the classroom, and the more intimate setting of my classes has also made our sometimes intimidating campus size feel very small. The School of Social Work has also opened my eyes to a newfound interest of mine — social entrepreneurship.

The team in the Social Work department has given me the guidance I need to start my own Registered Student Organization on campus. They have pushed me to my highest college potential in a comfortable, family-like atmosphere, one in which I have taken great strides in my academic career.

As I look back over the past two and a half years, I am nothing less than completely excited to begin my senior year. I cannot wait to complete my coursework, get my masters degree, and embark on a rewarding career that not only embraces my childhood dream of helping others, but encompasses all I have learned and all the ways I’ve grown by being part of this amazing school at University of Illinois.”

Jason Davis, Mental Health Concentration, Class of 2017

“The reason I chose the MSW program is because I was looking for an experience that would give me valuable skills that I could implement to make a difference within our youth by catering to their mental health and behavioral needs. If you are looking for a master’s program that teaches you advance techniques and gives flexibility, than the MSW program is for you. The program gives you ample amount of time to finish your degree. As a part-time student, I am able to take classes at a pace where I can successfully focus on my classes, work as a full-time preschool teacher and remain on my course to complete my degree in two years. The school of social work provides an environment that is truly one-of-a-kind. I’ve never encountered a setting where there was so much faculty/student interaction inside and outside the classroom. There are informative discussions, community service opportunities, and tons of food that are available on a very consistent basis throughout the year. I will always be thankful I had the opportunity be a part of my new family, the MSW program.”

Eric Ray, Class of 2017

“I chose The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a couple of reasons. One, Illinois is the premier university that not only employers see as an major asset in employees, but also has the absolute best professors that care about their students’ successes.

The staff at the School of Social Work from advising to internship scheduling has taken a personal interest in my success as well.

I plan to work specifically in a diverse environment. The courses at the School of Social Work help me to prepare for an internship where I can use my newfound diversity knowledge to help others. Without an education that is centered on diversity and inclusion, I don’t believe I could excel in the field of Social Work, and the University of Illinois provides that.”

Brynn Howard, Health Care Concentration, Class of 2011

“I decided to attend the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois because of the amazing reputation that the program has- I knew there was no other school I wanted to attend. I chose the Health Care concentration because I had a strong interest in geriatric services, specifically Hospice Care. In the Health Care concentration, my interest grew into a passion as I learned- both in the classroom and hands on during my MSW internship at Carle Hospital.

Shortly after my graduation in 2011, I was hired at my internship placement, Carle Hospital, where I worked as the NICU social worker. While this was not a population I thought I would work in, I absolutely loved the families and children that I worked with. Even though I truly enjoyed working with that population, I still felt a strong urge to return to the geriatric population. I received an amazing opportunity to transfer to Carle Hospice in 2014, and I jumped at the chance to return to my passion. Working for Carle Hospice is a job that I love and truly feel that I have found my fit. Being able to be a small part in someone’s final days is a true gift.”

Chinonyerem Kamalu, Health Care Concentration, Class of 2015

“My experience in my MSW program cannot be described with mere words but I will use 3 words to describe it: great, awesome and fun filled. I did not only receive education towards my graduate degree, but I also developed my leadership skills. As an Executive Board Member of the GSWA and Student Co-Leader of the Diversity Committee I participated in organizing events for the graduate students and facilitated Diversity Committee brown bag discussions on difficult discussions which prepared me to take up tasks with confidence. I also became more vocal and ready to discuss with co-workers and healthcare team on some difficult discussions that people are very sensitive to discuss. My classes in addition to my participation in some committees prepared me with what to expect in the outside world and how to apply critical thinking in solving issues that can be sensitive.

I am completing my 3-months field placement at University of Illinois at Chicago Specialized care for Children which is a Title V program under the management of UIC which provide services for children and youth 0-21 years with special health care needs. I am in the Champaign Regional Office at 510 Devonshire Dr. Suite A, Champaign and the first MSW intern at the Champaign office. My duties include but not limited to the following:  registering of diagnosis, determination of medical eligible conditions, assessment of needs/concerns, complete care coordination plan, communicate with physicians and specialists, request for reports and communicate recommendation to client families, attend multidisciplinary team meetings, attend medical appointments with clients and families if needed, communicate and refer families to community resources/providers, and prepare teens/youths 14-21 about transition to adulthood especially with providers.

My goal is to work in the pediatrics with special interest in children with developmental disability. I plan to obtain my LCSW and in few years continue my education to obtain my Doctorate in Social Work.”