According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 3.5 million full-and-part-time public school teachers in the 2017-2018 school year. Master of Social Work student Kalen Kelly, a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, was ready to join the millions of teachers across the country as an early childhood education and training major at the College of Charleston. But it only took one realization for her to see that she wanted to help children in other ways.
Kelly’s decision to change her career path came from a student teaching experience during her senior year at a head start-funded child development classroom for children aged three to four.
“There were so many children with needs outside the classroom that I felt a calling to move towards something that could address problems at home,” Kelly says. “If a child is not sleeping at night, it's hard to ask them to sit and pay attention to a math lesson. I knew that I wanted to address those issues outside the classroom.”
Kelly believes that children as young as three and four years old are at an age when an adult can help shape their thinking. She is now aware that the social work field provides a greater opportunity to help nurture and provide children with the ability to learn and grow that leads to better life outcomes.
“There are many similarities that can be taken from the classroom and applied to social work, especially if someone takes a holistic approach to teaching by supporting the whole person,” Kelly says. “The social and emotional aspect ties into both with the consciousness of addressing the whole being, especially with a child in the developmental ages.”
While Kelly is no longer in the classroom, since last fall, her field placement has been at the Bradshaw Institute for Community Child Health and Advocacy, which is a part of Prisma Health Children's Hospital in Greenville. The institute aims to promote child and family wellness and advance child health through education and research. Each of Kelly’s clients is a different case, and she must determine solutions and best practices based on several factors. Looking at each case from multiple vantage points has been beneficial, such as determining if a client has accessible transportation to utilize needed resources.
“I work with the pediatric support services team, which does a lot of things for the community, such as sending nurse practitioners to schools,” Kelly says. “I specifically work with referrals to mental health counseling for families, which supports them in finding solutions to help their child. The team focuses on the social determinants of health, and we help bridge the gap.”
Kelly has also learned to always ask if more help is needed. For example, this may be making a phone call because someone may see the presenting issue of a child who has anxiety and seeks counseling.
“There always seems to be an underlying issue of something more going on, so it’s beneficial to ask if they need anything else, such as transportation need or food insecurity,” Kelly says. “Not many people want to disclose that information, so you have to ask an open-ended question. Unfortunately, there is typically more going on.”
Kelly also had the opportunity to work on the institute’s inaugural Diaper Bank. The bank supports families in South Carolina’s Upstate region who need assistance with diapers for children from birth to four-years-old. According to research found by Kelly, one-in-three families in the U.S. experience diaper need, and infants can require up to 12 diapers daily. The Diaper Bank distributes diapers quarterly, and the first event earlier this year gave out approximately 35,000 diapers.
“It was my second day when my field instructor told me they were looking into starting a diaper bank and asked me to look up the diaper needs in the U.S., state and community,” Kelly says. “It grew so quickly, and I joke how even though I don’t have children, I’m now a 'diaper expert' because I had to look into sizing, how many diapers are needed monthly, and how long a child is in a certain stage for a diaper size.”
Kelly believes she is called to working with families during their children’s crucial developmental years. But tying her experiences in classrooms and social work-related field placements have provided her with a greater scope to understand and help vulnerable families and children.
“I've been fortunate to work on the state level (Department of Social Services), a hospital and pediatric setting, and community advocacy,” Kelly says. “I had some experience of seeing school social workers while in the classroom but still had some misconceptions. Learning more about the field, social workers do more than I ever imagined. There is a need for social workers in every area of society.”