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“They got to see and understand the strength of the human spirit.”

When our students aren’t in the classroom, they’re learning in the real world. Because sometimes it’s these experiences that make the best lessons. For Carol R. Amendola, coordinator of the bachelor of social work program at West Virginia University, that means sending students out into the field to learn about how a water crisis can affect a community.
Carol R. Amendola

Students in Social Work 324: Social Work with Communities and Organizations worked on a 6-week community engagement project, focusing on Scott’s Run, an unincorporated mining community in Monongalia County, West Virginia.

Amendola wanted her students to study how water can impact communities, based on the water crises in Charleston, W.Va. and Flint, Mich.

“The students are actually learning skills that they will use as professional social workers once they graduate,” Amendola said. “So, I thought, since it was a practice course, we couldn’t just sit in the classroom. We had to actually get out into the community, and they needed to practice these skills.

“We could sit in class and talk about it all day, but until you actually go out and do it, I think the experience is so important,” she said.

The mines in the area have long been shut down, and the majority of the residents have Morgantown city water, but acid mine drainage, an outflow of water from metal or coal mines, could still affect well water.

“A lot of the residents had lived in the Scott’s Run area long enough that they had experienced when it was really bad, like when the creeks were totally orange and the fish couldn’t live,” Amendola said. “They would talk about going fishing, and how bad the conditions were. Now, it’s gotten much better.”

Students in the class collaborated with Jason Hubbart, director of the WVU Institute of Water Security and Science and professor in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design; Kendra Hatcher, project environmental strategist at Downstream Strategies in Morgantown; and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. 

Hubbart helped Amendola make sure that the information they were using in class regarding water safety was correct, and Hatcher spoke to students about W.Va. Senate Bill 373, a law that states that companies regulating public water systems must have a water protection plan in place to prevent future contamination.

Downstream Strategies wrote the protection plan for Monongalia County, Amendola said, so Hatcher spoke to the class about how the plan impacts the Scott’s Run community in particular.

The West Virginia Rivers Coalition provided the class with materials to pass out to the residents of Scott’s Run. Students visited the community on two separate occasions, speaking to residents about water safety and handing out bags with pamphlets about testing water and other safety precautions, such as who to contact in emergencies.

“The WVU School of Social Work’s focus is rural social work,” Amendola said, “So working in the rural communities of Scott’s Run was a good experience for the students.

“It just really drove home to the students what water can do to communities, whether it’s lead in pipes or if it’s contamination of a river or if it’s flooding,” she said.

The residents of Scott’s Run were more than welcoming, Amendola said. One long-time resident even invited the students to come back and visit her.

“They got to see and understand the strength of the human spirit, and how people can overcome things,” Amendola said. “That’s really a key to any social work position—is understanding [that] each person is unique.”

When the students were in the classroom, they worked on individual projects. An information sheet was created to let Scott’s Run residents know that the students would be visiting, and the sheet was posted in five popular places in the community—including the Shack Neighborhood House, the Pursglove post office and the Cassville Volunteer Fire Department.

Other individual projects included creating posters, day-in-the-life poster presentations and a paper based on an article they read about the Elk River Chemical Spill.

Students in Amendola’s class also had the benefit of being more prepared for their internships.

“It was a nice step toward getting the student’s feet wet,” Amendola said.

Undergraduate students in the School of Social Work are required to complete a field placement in their final semester. They work in their placement four days a week, 32 hours per week, for a 16-week period.

“Now, they’re working in agencies everyday, and they’re dealing with clients who are coming into those agencies,” Amendola said. “It was just a nice, little transitional class to sort of move them towards being prepared [to work].”

Photo credit: Beej Jorgensen