Interns provide help, energy to Durham shelter

Ret Boney

DURHAM, N.C. – Over the past three years, a stream of interns from local universities have brought their new skills to Urban Ministries of Durham, both as part of their education and as a way of giving back.

Their participation has come at just the right time, and has had a transformative effect on the organization, says Peter Donlon, director of programs for Urban Ministries.

“As a result of the students, our organization has shifted focus,” he says. “We were known as just a shelter. We’ve shifted perspective from the last stop on the bus to the first stop on the bus.”

The organization now serves as a triage unit of sorts, he says, evaluating the needs of people coming through the doors and acting as an entryway to the continuum of care in Durham.

“That shift has created a lot of positive energy,” says Donlon. “The organization is really breathing and living through that process.”

And given the effect the economic earthquake has had on people across the community, the new energy arrived just in time.

Over the past year alone, the group’s homeless shelter has seen demand jump 8 percent, food served to the hungry through its café is up 12 percent, households served by its pantry and clothing closet shot up more than 30 percent, and pounds of food distributed spiked 42 percent, he says.

“The story that tells is that people don’t have enough to get by each week,” says Donlon. “We’re seeing people we haven’t seen in seven years – they’re apologetically saying they need to come back.”

Amid that increasing pressure and need, 11 students from Shaw University, Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Pembroke and N.C. Central University are getting real-world skills and class credit while helping Urban Ministries deal with the effects of the recession.

The influx of clients, particularly into the organization’s alcohol and substance-abuse recovery program, means people arrive at a variety of stages with a variety of specific needs, says Donlon.

Those with stable lives prior to addiction often have an easier recovery than those who are chronically homeless, or who are new to addiction and therefore don’t have a good understanding of the disease.

To help figure out who needs what types of services, two social work students from Shaw University in Raleigh each work about 20 hours a week with newcomers, conducting mental-health and medical-health assessments.

Once clients are settled into the right recovery class, they are handed off to one of two additional Shaw interns to take part in more organized social work and to get help with critical details like finding birth certificates and getting connected to free or low-cost legal services if necessary.

The six- to eight-month program uses the 12-step process, and interns receive close supervision and support throughout their tenure.

A third social-work student from UNC-Pembroke works with Urban Ministry’s supportive-housing program, which primarily serves graduates of the addiction program.

He travels to the program’s seven housing units around the city, conducting home visits with clients to making sure they staying clean and sober and talking through the challenges they face after they leave the addiction-recovery program.

Before any of the interns begin work, Donlon meets with field instructors from the schools to hammer out mutual goals and a learning contract for the students.

And while interns are not paid, they receive course credit and real-world experience during the semester they spend with Urban Ministries.

“Some of the students say they’ve studies things at school on Tuesdays and Thursdays that they can turn around and apply the next day here,” says Donlon. “It helps them grow personally and professionally.”

The internship program has allowed Urban Ministries, which has an annual budget of $1.3 million and staff of 20 full-time equivalents, to offer its clients more and better services, he says.

“Clients here are getting more concentrated attention and they have more resources as a result of the interns being here,” says Donlon.

And so far, the internship program has led to one full-time hire.

In 2009, Mandy Sackreiter, a joint social-work and divinity student at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, spent her internship working with another intern to create “Outreach Ministries,” a program to help clients without case managers access resources.

“I’ve always felt I was supposed to work with homeless people, but have had a sense of trepidation in coming down to the shelter,” she says. “I’ve had a good experience here. I enjoy working with the people who come here for services.”

And after joining the staff later that year as a case manager for the Journey Program, which provides extended shelter stays coupled with more extensive case-management services, Sackreiter helped flesh out and implement the internship program.

“She came in with a vision that she’s been able to pass on to the folks that have come in behind her,” says Donlon.

She’s also a firm believer in the internship program, which provides needed capacity for the organization, but also new and varied experience for students.

“At UNC, there’s a lot of focus on more clinical social work, and that’s not what everybody does,” she says. “Doing casework and having to think on your feet in a crisis is a different set of skills.”

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