Social Work Seniors Work the Frontlines of Recent Tornado Disaster
Ashton Boyd and Elizabeth Rains thought they were prepared.
Before graduating this spring, the social work seniors were required to perform a 450-hour field placement with Interfaith Ministries of Calhoun County. After four years of study, they felt ready for anything. But nothing could truly prepare them for what happened next.
Around dinnertime on March 25, an EF-3 tornado ripped a 34-mile gash through Ohatchee and Wellington before weakening in Cherokee County, leaving five people dead and numerous houses in ruin. Working with Interfaith Ministries, Boyd and Rains were in the midst of the destruction, helping survivors pick up the pieces of their lives.
Boyd will always remember the elderly woman who asked only for a tarp. She and two family members had nowhere else to go, so they were living in the ruins of the house they shared.
“When I talked to her for the first time, she told me her needs were minimal, and her family just needed a tarp for their home,” Boyd, a 22-year-old from Oneonta, said. “She was more worried about her other neighbors getting assistance first.”
Rains’ most memorable encounter came on her first day at the Volunteer Resource Center, where she met a man trying to get basic resources for himself and his small children, in shock from having lost everything.
“I had never really seen firsthand the emotional and mental damage that a storm such as that one could cause,” said Rains, 22, from Scottsboro. “It gave me a new perspective on exactly how useful crisis intervention techniques are, and I felt prepared from my classes at JSU and knew I could help him.”
Site placement is intended to give graduating students a real sense of what a career in social work will entail, explained Robyn Snider, coordinator of Social Work Field Education at JSU.
“It’s meant to be hands-on,” Snider said. “It’s an opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it in the real world. It’s not just helpful for students – it’s essential.”
It was Snider who suggested Boyd and Rains apply to work at Interfaith Ministries.
“Interfaith seemed like the best fit,” Boyd said. “There are several different programs at Interfaith Ministries that serve low-income adults and the homeless population of Calhoun County. I never expected to learn so much from a single agency. The programs and staff at this agency are incredible. I have never seen a staff so willing to serve in any way possible.”
Though Rains wasn’t familiar with Interfaith initially, she soon learned of the valuable role the nonprofit agency plays in the community for those in need.
“It has so many wonderful programs that help out in so many ways,” Rains said. “I never expected to learn as much as I have or to be so prepared to take on the real world post-graduation. The people I worked with are phenomenal and have really enriched my life so much.”
Then came the tornado.
Interfaith Ministries is a part of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), which provides local disaster relief. When the tornado hit on March 25, Boyd was assigned to work as a case manager with the Calhoun County EMA, matching victims with the resources they needed, from temporary shelter to debris removal.
“It was our job to get them what they needed to be safe and on the road to recovery,” Boyd said. “These experiences really outlined what it means to be a social worker for me because it was my job to locate resources for this family, advocate for them and get them the immediate help they needed.”
Rains worked at the volunteer resource center at Oak Bowery Church in Ohatchee.
“My job was to send out resources – volunteers and their equipment – to specific locations that had been affected,” Rains said. “I also did some canvassing of the affected areas to better learn what areas needed what kind of equipment allocated to them.”
Going in, Snider knew that the placement at Interfaith Ministries would provide Boyd and Rains with tremendous experience, but the tornado amplified that experience beyond anyone’s imagination.
“It was a mixed thing,” Snider said. “Obviously, it was terrible what happened to people because of this tornado and the devastation, but it was a great learning experience for these students.”
Boyd said she enjoyed her placement more than she expected. “I would not have gotten this kind of experience in another placement,” she said. “It definitely grew my love for social work and solidified that this is what I want to do.”
Rains decided to pursue social work because she wanted a job where she could be in someone’s corner, rooting for them no matter what. She said this experience proved she made the right choice.
“I fell in love with social work because it was such a diverse field,” Rains said. “Through this experience, I got to see a whole side of social work that I never would have had at any other internship. I feel very fortunate.”