School of Social Welfare Receives Award from Spina Bifida Association

A group of 12 smiling people wearing formal attire stand in a row in front of a gauzy draped backdrop decorated with twinkle lights, gold and blue cutout stars, and gold and blue star shaped balloons.
Left to right: Julia Duff, Kristen Hunt, Alyssa Lotmore (SSW), Gabe Segar, Lisa DeLaMater (SSW), Victoria Rizzo, Conlee Deleonardis, Leni Ferner, Claudia Hernández, Provost Carol Kim, President Havidán Rodríguez, Alysia Kelley.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 22, 2022) — University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare (SSW) received the Spina Bifida Association of New York State’s 2022 “You Make a Difference Award,” presented at the organization’s annual “Dare to Dream” fundraising gala on Nov. 19. The honor recognizes the outstanding service of SSW student interns, who played a critical role in providing essential services for individuals with spina bifida and their families through the height of the pandemic.

The Spina Bifida Association of New York State (SBANYS) is among more than 400 community-based organizations where Master of Social Work (MSW) students can earn field education credits required for their program of study. Students complete two, 500-hour internships in the MSW program, providing much needed support to organizations, individuals and families, groups and communities.

Spina bifida (SB) is a birth defect wherein the spinal column does not fully close, leaving nerves exposed. The size and location of the opening, as well as the level of nerve damage, impact how someone with the condition will be affected.  SB can cause mobility challenges, orthopedic complications, and various symptoms affecting the GI system, bladder, skin and brain. The condition is considered rare, and while treatment and surgery can help alleviate symptoms, there is no cure.

Julia Duff, executive director of the Spina Bifida Association of New York State and 2016 SSW alum, began working with the organization as a part-time case manager in 2015 and took on her current role in 2018. 

“Before the pandemic, budget cuts forced us to reduce our staff.” Duff said. “It would have been impossible to provide individual and family services from 2019 to 2021 without our partnership with the School of Social Welfare, and the ability to connect with student interns. It’s hard to say what would have happened to our consumers during the pandemic — one of the most challenging times of their lives — without the dedicated service of the SSW interns.”

Interns Kristen Hunt, Conlee Deleonardis, Bri Darnell, Leni Ferner, Gabe Segar and Alysia Kelley, all of whom completed or are currently enrolled in the School of Social Welfare’s Master of Social Work program, were recognized at the gala.

Serving the Community, Building Skills

SBANYS interns navigate social welfare programs on behalf of consumers (people living with SB and their families) to help them secure housing, healthcare, food stamps and supplemental income. They also serve as case managers, provide individual and family counseling, liaise with agencies like child protective services and accompany consumers to medical appointments, where they serve as advocates.

Education and outreach are key functions of being an SBANYS intern. In addition to amplifying SBANYS messaging through e-newsletters, social media and mailings to healthcare providers, interns arrange meetings with elected representatives, organize conferences and lead workshops in public venues and classrooms across the Capital Region, including SSW.

“The twin aims of our outreach efforts are to raise awareness and decrease stigma,” Duff said. “This is all part of our work to create a more inclusive, informed and compassionate society. SSW interns have played a tremendous role in facilitating this sort of programming — both remotely and in person.”

Kristen Hunt was among the interns working for SBANYS during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She now works as an Outpatient Mental Health Therapist at St. Mary’s Mental Health Adult Clinic.

“This placement helped me add clinical skills to my social work toolkit by providing opportunities to engage with consumers one-on-one,” explained Hunt, who was an SBANYS intern from 2019-2020 and graduated with her Master of Social Work in 2021. “I also participated in a large-scale advocacy program, joining SBANYS to meet with local representatives in a successful effort to obtain state funding to increase SBANYS’s capacity to provide services and support. Interning with SBANYS prepared me to better assist my current clients with self-advocacy. It also helped build my understanding of the systems and programs that serve those with developmental disabilities.”

Daring to Dream

“Receiving the ‘You Make a Difference Award’ is a great honor and a testament to the School of Social Welfare’s commitment to community engagement and service that also supports hands-on educational opportunities for our students,” said Victoria Rizzo, interim dean of the School of Social Welfare. “Both undergraduate and graduate students have been providing services for many years to communities and agencies through our internships in the BSW and MSW programs. Our partnership with SBANYS is one example of how these service opportunities create important benefits for local organizations, community members and our students.”

Other honorees this year included Ed Wilcenski, Esq. — a longtime friend of the spina bifida community who was recognized as the “Dare to Dream Honorary Chair”. The “Volunteer of the Year Award” was presented to the family of Orlo Hulett, Sr., in his memory, acknowledging his many years of service to the organization.