Serving veterans during a local Stand Down, MSW students demonstrate Saint Leo's core values while gaining practical counseling experience.

It wasn't a pricy, air-conditioned salon in an affluent area of town but a stiff chair in the humid Florida heat.

But it didn't matter.

As Saint Leo University graduate student Sandra Chandler snipped away at the shaggy hair of the military veteran seated before her, she sensed the simple trim giving his spirit, as well as his worn countenance, a much-needed lift.

A haircut was just one of the broad range of services available to veterans during One Community Now Stand Down. A grassroots movement of intervention programs, Operation Stand Down has been conducted in hundreds of communities nationwide every year since 1988. The recent Stand Down – staged not far from Saint Leo University's main campus – offered highly needed services including food, clothing, medical and dental services, benefits advice, and mental health services to more than 300 military veterans including 181 homeless and at-risk veterans.

This was the second consecutive year that students in Saint Leo's online master's in social work (MSW) program, alongside faculty and staff, volunteered at the three-day event.

In addition to putting the university's core values – community, respect, integrity, responsible stewardship, excellence and personal development – into action, MSW students applied counseling skills learned in the classroom to assist and serve the veterans.

Some volunteers, such as Mary Martinez-Drovie, a graduate enrollment counselor, shared additional skills with the vets. Martinez-Drovie offered her artistic talents, providing art therapy opportunities, while Sandra shared her barbering skills.

Future social workers' desire to change lives

"As I cut his hair, he sat a little straighter and shared with me that he was just over one year sober," says Sandra.

"He had attended the Stand Down last year and said that it changed his life. He pulled the commemorative coin that he received at the event last year out of his pocket and told me that it is with him at all times.

"He said has an apartment now and is almost ready to reach out to his estranged family. He believes they will accept him and be proud of him now."

Interested in counseling, case management, treatment, and group work, Sandra's goal is to become a psychology-oriented social worker. A volunteer in the psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery center at the local veterans hospital, Sandra says she is drawn to working with veterans.

Service learning takes online classroom outdoors

"The annual Stand Down event provides the perfect setting for service learning for our MSW students," says Dr. James Whitworth, associate dean of Saint Leo's School of Education and Social Services and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with extensive experience teaching military social work and counseling veterans.

"The veterans needed counseling services and support, and the students needed an opportunity to practice good research-based counseling approaches. So you had that wonderful blend for a solid service learning project."

According to Whitworth, the MSW students "come alongside" the veterans participating in the Stand Down, listen to their stories and try to understand the world from their perspectives. Students attempt to match the veterans with available resources and benefits such as transitional housing and treatment services


Relevant experience

It was exactly the type of experience 30-year Air Force veteran and MSW student Karla Jordan was seeking. Her career goal is to gain social work experience working for the federal government as a counselor at military installations and veterans hospitals and then transition to a position in social work policy with a federal agency such as the Veterans Administration.

"The opportunity to assist and fellowship with veterans, explain military terminology, lifestyle, and services to my fellow MSW colleagues, and to see all of the people that came together to better the quality of life of veterans made the Stand Down a meaningful experience for me," says Jordan.

For first-semester MSW student Andrea White, learning about involvement of Saint Leo students in last year's event was instrumental in helping her decide to apply to the university's program.

"My ultimate goal is to work with our nation's service members so seeing a program that is actively involved with our community's veteran population touched me," she says.

White says she interacts daily with current and former service members in her position with USAA, but having the opportunity to use the direct practice skills she has learned so far was a rewarding experience.

"The Stand Down gave me even more confirmation that my career goals are worth all the time and effort put into a graduate program such as this."

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Photo credits: Courtesy Mary Martinez-Drovie, Sandra Chandler, Karla Jordan, Andrea White