Elms social work students take their first foray into the field by volunteering at a Western Massachusetts "adoption party."

Elms students organized Christmas gift drives and sponsorships for needy children

Elms social work students from the off-campus program at Springfield Technical Community College got to see firsthand the impact of social work on the lives of children by volunteering at an "adoption party" in Westfield in November.

A Real-Life Look at Social Work

Many beginning social work students might think of the field in an abstract sense; not all of them are exposed at the outset to the real emotional impact of social work. It’s a labor of love, according to Miguel Arce, adjunct faculty in sociology and social work at Elms College.

On Nov. 9, about 20 students in Arce’s Introduction to Social Work course made their first real forays into the field by volunteering at an “adoption party” event held by the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE) at the Boys & Girls Club in Westfield, Mass.

Participants included about 30 children aged 10-15 who are waiting for homes, as well as about 30 social workers and about 30 prospective parents. The fun for the children included woodworking projects with The Home Depot, gymnastics and dance demonstrations, arts and crafts, jewelry making, balloon creations and pizza.

Student volunteers served as “buddies” for the children. “They watched over the children, or served pizza, or assisted with arts and crafts, and they cleaned up after the event,” Arce said. This buddy system freed up social workers to connect with prospective adoptive families.

Most of the Elms volunteers are enrolled in the social work BS degree-completion program offered in conjunction with Springfield Technical Community College. About 10 graduate students from STCC also participated. “It is a praxis for social work students, combining what they are learning with the practical experience,” Arce said.

Social justice is one of the core values of Elms; the institution strives to instill values of equal opportunity and justice in the campus community, and that sense of social responsibility is particularly strong in those who work with children who need homes.

The adoption event provided a real-life look at the impact of social work. “It’s a very pivotal experience for these students,” said Maureen Holland, director of the undergraduate social work department at Elms. “It’s like, ‘Wow, these are real kids who really don’t have parents [in the picture].’ It’s a really significant moment for our students.”

The event’s impact extends beyond the students, too: There are 3,000 children who have been legally freed for adoption in Massachusetts, and the local need is especially great.

“The Western Massachusetts region is unique in that it has the largest percentage of children waiting in foster care with a goal of adoption, and only 10 percent of the state’s population to draw families from,” said Maurine Albano, the regional representative for MARE. “That’s why adoption parties are so necessary for us out here.”

Many of the students have children of their own, Arce said. Some already work in human services, but most are not doing this kind of work, Holland added. Experiences such as this can help them to decide on a path for their future careers, she said: “It’s very meaningful. It’s not abstract; it’s not in a book; it’s not in a case file ... [These are] real kids, so it’s a pretty powerful experience.”