In Our Own Back Yard

USF Gives Back to Local Groups

Written by Edward Carpenter and Samantha Bronson, Photos by Barbara Ries

Whether building a library in Africa or assisting midwives in Guatemala, outreach is an essential part of a USF education, so essential that the university makes service a required part of undergraduate education.

Yet USF’s efforts are not always a continent away. Many focus on needs in the Bay Area. As Corey Cook, assistant professor of politics and director of USF’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, puts it, not only does the university have a responsibility to educate students to be men and women for others, but it also has a responsibility to address social justice issues right here in its back yard.

So active is USF in the community, that it has been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the fourth straight year, demonstrating USF students’ exemplary service on issues ranging from poverty, and homelessness, to environmental justice.

Following are portraits of outreach efforts by USF students in the Bay Area.

Homework on Homelessness

When Corey Cook teaches students about housing policy and homelessness, he’s not content to have them simply read about the issues. He wants them to get out into neighborhoods and experience the challenges firsthand.

That means assisting with a variety of housing and homeless-related activities at various San Francisco-based organizations—from doing intake at homeless shelters to working with nonprofit housing development organizations to advocating for changes in housing and homeless policies.

“Students get practical experience that absolutely augments what they learn in class,” said Cook, assistant professor of politics. “It really gives life to the material that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It gives them a more nuanced view than just me lecturing about the issues.”

Junior politics major Kimberly Kane, for example, worked with Glide Foundation in the Tenderloin last year to fulfill the service-learning requirement of USF’s core curriculum. At the request of the organization, she and two other students assessed and analyzed San Francisco’s 10-year plan to abolish chronic homelessness to help Glide determine where to place its priorities.

“These are questions that we want to be able to ask, but did not have the capacity to do ourselves,” said James Lin, Glide’s manager of global ministries and organizational integration. “We’re too busy providing the services we provide to sit back and spend this level of energy on these incredibly important questions. It’s tough for us, so the ability for USF students to step in is a particularly good match.”

Additionally, Kane spent about 40 hours over the course of the semester helping with Glide’s after school program. There, she helped children with homework, accompanied them on outings to the park, and generally served as a mentor to the children, all of whom were from low-income families. She didn’t realize what an impact she was having until she returned after a two-week absence and was greeted with comments like, “Where were you? I missed you.”

“It’s an hour out of your day, but to a little kid who doesn’t have someone helping them with homework or their parents are working two jobs, an hour of your time really makes such a difference,” Kane said. “It was probably the most amazing experience I’ve had since I’ve been at USF. I felt like I was actually making a difference.”

Counseled to Success

If USF master’s student Sheena Sattarpour needs reminding of the impact she’s having as the only counselor at Holy Angels School in Colma, she thinks of the client she began working with at the beginning of the school year. The girl, a good student, was unhappy with her grades. She knew she could do better, but told Sattarpour that her situation at home made school challenging—her father had a substance abuse problem.

Through the School of Education’s Mission Possible program, Sattarpour began seeing the girl—and sometimes her family—in regular counseling sessions, offering a listening ear and simply being there without passing judgment. Family members, including the father, initiated changes. As a result, the girl’s grades have improved and she feels more confident and outgoing, Sattarpour said.

Cases like that demonstrate just how important Sattarpour and other counselors in the program are, said Brian Gerrard, executive director of USF’s Center for Child and Family Development, which runs the program. Since its founding in 1984, Mission Possible has placed more than 500 second-year master’s students as counselors at more than 100 schools. They have worked with more than 10,000 at-risk children and their families during that time.

The schools the program serves—30 this year, 11 of which are Catholic—typically have more than 500 students and no resources to hire counselors.

Because the Mission Possible counselors are trained to work with students and their families, they can address issues including unemployment, stress, divorce, and substance abuse, all of which can affect a student’s performance in the classroom.

“Without Mission Possible, there would be no counselor in these schools and children who are failing at school, having difficulty succeeding at school, would continue on that path,” Gerrard said. “It would be a very different situation for a lot of those kids.”

Filling a Critical Need

Four nursing students—all of them registered nurses working toward master’s degrees—are filling vital roles this semester by serving as school nurses. If it weren’t for them, seven Catholic elementary schools in San Francisco’s Mission district would have no nurse available to their students.

“We don’t have the budget or the funding to afford to have nurses at any of the schools,” said Richard Lee, business manager of the Alliance of Mission District Catholic Schools. “This partnership has been quite a Godsend.”

The partnership, which began two years ago, has nursing students visiting their assigned schools once a week as the main component of a course.

The nurses are doing “everything from reviewing immunization records to make sure those are updated to providing hands-on patient care, taking care of bumps and bruises,” said Kimberleigh Cox, School of Nursing instructor. Some nurses, like Ty Stavely, have also been asked to put together presentations on various health-related topics. For Stavely, a manager for surgical services, that has meant developing presentations on such topics as smoking, healthy eating, and hygiene.

Jennifer Heisleman, an IV therapist, has vision-screened all the students at the two schools she works at (the last time either school had a vision screening was at least six years ago), as well as reviewed the immunization records at both schools. Without a nurse on staff, the schools were relying upon the office staff to periodically review the records. The result, however, was that this important task was not getting done since the records are full of medical acronyms that don’t instinctively make sense. Since completing the comprehensive review, Heisleman has trained office staff members on how to properly review the records and she has set up a process to ensure the reviews are completed.

Working in these schools has provided Heisleman, Stavely, and others with the opportunity to have an impact on people’s lives they don’t often get, even as working nurses.

“In this instance, it’s kind of a chance to hit a population that’s totally underserved and there’s absolutely no funding for otherwise. That’s really rewarding,” Heisleman said.

Joyce Gehr assists immigrant farm workers in the fields along the San Mateo County coast.
Kimberly Kane helps with homeless-related issues and long-range planning in the Tenderloin District.
Ty Stavely serves as a volunteer nurse at Mission Dolores School.
An advocate for children’s rights in San Francisco, Yolanda Peneda spends up to 30 hours a week in court.


Crossing Borders

As an international studies major, senior Joyce Gehr follows U.S.-Mexico immigration issues in the news.

She is familiar with case studies and research papers on immigrant farm workers from courses in her Latin America studies minor. But, none of it prepared her for Martín.

A farm worker from Mexico who lives on the San Mateo County coast, Martín (who requested his name be changed to protect his privacy) spent five years of his life in “indebted bondage” on an asparagus farm, unable to pay off his debt because the property owner paid him only during the harvest season but required Martín to pay rent every month.

While Gehr had read about such things as sweatshops overseas, she hardly imagined this type of injustice so close to home—just over an hour drive from USF. “I could no longer pretend that it didn’t exist or continue to live my life in blissful ignorance,” she said.

Through University Ministry, Gehr met Martín and many other farm workers at the nonprofit farm worker community resource center Puente de la Costa Sur in Pescadero. Last fall, Gehr and about 30 other USF students volunteered at Puente for two hours or more once a week. Students practiced English and Spanish with the mostly male workers, played checkers and other games, helped cook and clean after meals, and donated clothes.

The seemingly simple act of students taking time to talk with the workers had an impact—the workers, who typically feel very isolated, looked forward to the weekly meetings. They enjoyed improving their English skills and sharing their stories, gaining confidence that others care about their situations.

The experience also affected how Gehr and other students view their everyday lives. After her time at Puente, Gehr became more conscious of where she buys food and joined USF’s Back to da Roots, an urban gardening club organized around environmental and social justice issues.

“Now, I buy local produce from farmer’s markets and grow my own food,” Gehr said. “I also researched some agricultural companies that I should avoid at all costs and have boycotted those. Pescadero is our extended community and it is our obligation as citizens to reach out to bring these issues to light and bring awareness to those who don’t know, and to start the slow process of change.”

Beyond the Bottom Line

A surprising thing happened to junior Brian Park on the way to earning a marketing degree in business. He discovered business isn’t just about the bottom line for a growing number Bay Area corporate and entrepreneurial innovators.

When evaluating how to promote a company, Park now considers the so-called triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit—which introduces the additional corporate responsibilities of operating an environmentally sustainable and socially conscious business, in addition to making money.

“The idea of doing business in a socially responsible manner never really occurred to me before,” said Park, who came face-to-face with social enterprises and the social economy—where businesses generate revenue by providing services that benefit society—through an internship with social enterprise Hub Bay Area last summer.

Hub, with local offices in Berkeley and San Francisco, fosters collaboration between nonprofits, for-profits, and cooperatives in the arenas of clean technology, public health, and international development. Park spent 20 hours a week interning at Hub during the summer and liked it so much he chose to continue working there without pay to fulfill the service-learning requirement for his Leadership and Organizational Behavior class.

USF’s Impact in the Bay Area

USF students are out in force, working to improve the lives and provide much-needed resources to residents of the Bay Area:

  • Students in a math class work with a variety of local organizations that focus on youth, doing everything from tutoring to designing ways of teaching financial literacy.
  • Through a partnership between University Ministry and Project Open Hand, students deliver meals weekly to senior citizens and people living with AIDS in the Tenderloin. A new club on campus, Students for Cancer Awareness, volunteers at Family House, an organization that provides temporary housing to families of children with cancer and other life-threatening conditions.
  • Freshman students have donated extra money from their dining accounts to buy sandwiches, drinks, and blankets for the homeless on Haight Street.
  • Nursing students have successfully organized and implemented a large-scale flu shot clinic in the Tenderloin.
  • Students and faculty involved with the San Quentin Trust Alliance work with men incarcerated at San Quentin Prison, including conducting educational workshops on a host of issues related to re-entry to society.
  • The School of Law’s Street Law Program brings law students into inner-city classrooms to serve as role models for young people while teaching them about practical aspects of the law.
  • The politics department regularly places students in internships and service-learning positions in homeless shelters, government offices, and related community agencies.
  • Architecture and community design students work with the Quesada Gardens Initiative in Bayview-Hunters Point to help local residents grow their own food.
  • As part of their effort to combat modern day slavery, students in the Erasmus living-learning community researched massage parlors and sweatshops in San Francisco, noting violations of city and health department regulations.
  • Computer science students work to bridge the digital divide by setting up computer labs in disadvantaged schools in the Bay Area.

“The idea is for students to become involved in and have an impact on their community using their business skills while being active in and learning about their disciplines,” said business Professor Dayle Smith, director of USF’s Business Honors Cohort Program. About 15 business students have interned or completed service-learning at Hub.

Park, who worked with sophomore international business major Ari Brownstone to grow Hub’s membership, attended business and nonprofit mixers, conducted Internet research on likely partners, and spread the word about Hub’s mission through social media and Web marketing. “If this spreads, then perhaps in the near future it will become the trend to do business in a way that doesn’t hurt the Earth and mankind as a whole,” said Brownstone.

Advocates for Foster Kids

Yolanda Peneda does more than study case law. As a third-year law student interested in children’s rights, Peneda spends as many as 30 hours per week in San Francisco courts fighting for foster kids through the School of Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic.

“Often, children in foster care have been abused or neglected by the very people who were supposed to protect them,” Peneda said. “The least we can do is to give them a voice in the court that will decide their future.”

Peneda is one of about six full-time and two part-time USF students learning by taking part in the community outreach offered by the clinic. The students’ work, for which they receive from three to six classroom credits, is meant to promote the rights of those who often find themselves without advocates as well as provide professional experience for the law students, said Patty Fitzsimmons, director of the clinic. Initiated in 2005, the program has students working an average of 50 cases each year.

“There was and still is no other law school in the Bay Area that provides direct representation to children in the child welfare system,” Fitzsimmons said.

From public schools that shirk their responsibilities to provide special education services, to unresponsive group foster homes, to a social welfare system that allows a child to die in spite of repeated third-party reports of medical neglect by the parents (all cases Peneda has dealt with), Peneda said her single-minded focus is to learn to become an effective representative for children in the system.

By exposing law students to psychology and social work standards through an interdisciplinary approach, the clinic has been a party to important court rulings—the most notable being a 2005 case published by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that required the child welfare system to adhere to oft-ignored timelines that left children in legal limbo for months or years.

“This is a perfect example of how our students meet with attorneys, social workers, therapists, and school personnel to get real experience advocating for a client in many arenas,” Fitzsimmons said.