For Casey Faulkingham of Houlton, it was a chance to live in a bustling European city and to work with children and refugee families from Afghanistan, Russia and Morocco. For Aiko Van Landeghem of Belgium, it was an opportunity to experience campus life and hometown culture in Maine and to understand the universal challenges of homeless teens. For both young women, the Global Work with Immigrant Kids (GWIK) exchange program, offered through the University of Maine School of Social Work with partner schools in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Spain, Denmark and Belgium, has opened the door to personal and academic growth, global travel, deeper commitment to social service, and a network of new friends.
The GWIK exchange aims to improve training and education for aspiring social workers in the Europe Union and the United States, according to Gail Werrbach, Associate Professor of Social Work and Director of the University of Maine School of Social Work. UMaine, the lead partner school in the program, has participated since 2004 through two four-year federal grants from the U.S. Department of Education that have helped offset the costs of travel and accommodations for students and faculty. The second round of DOE funding will run out next year; Werrbach hopes to continue the program even without the federal scholarships.
“This program helps students develop understanding of global issues impacting social work, families and children,” Werrbach says. “The U.S. students learn about other ways to structure social, education and health programs. It really helps them think beyond our borders about ways that other countries try to solve problems.”
In addition to broadening their academic and professional horizons, Werrbach says the GWIK program has allowed students from small-townMaine to travel far outside their home state and experience a semester of study abroad. And urban-dwelling students from Europe, who typically are more seasoned travelers, have had a chance to experience the slower-paced charms of rural life in northern Maine.
Faculty exchanges among participating schools also result in a more international classroom perspective,she says.
Aiko at Shaw House
“Before I came here, I didn’t know much about homeless teenagers,” says Aiko, 22, who arrived at UMaine in September of 2011. “We don’t have homeless shelters for youth in Belgium. We have a lot of prevention instead.”
A final-year student of “social education care work” at Plantijn Hogeschool in her native city of Antwerp, Aiko knew she was interested in working with young people. Through her participation in GWIK, she found herself immersed in a semester-long field internship at Shaw House in Bangor, which provides emergency shelter and support services to runaway and homeless youth from age 10 to age 23.
With the Streetlight outreach team from Shaw House, Aiko searched the back streets and byways of downtown Bangor in a van, looking for displaced kids in need of help. She tried to get them to come in off the streets. She offered them food, clothes and basic first aid; referrals to health care, counseling, and legal services; and transportation to appointments.
“We are the link between the kids and the system,” she said.“Kids are afraid to go to these agencies. They are scared all the time because they don’t know what to expect.” Many of the youth are mistrustful of all aid workers and refuse to take
advantage of the help available, she said. Instead, they often resort to unlawful, self-destructive behaviors, including petty crime and substance abuse.
During the warm autumn months, Aiko and the Streetlight team found adolescents and teens camped out in wooded areas, under bridges and behind shopping centers throughout the city. The advent of colder weather brings some of them into the Shaw House
for shelter and meals, Aiko says, but many others resort to an endless shuffle of couch-surfing and other makeshift accommodations.
The youngsters served by Shaw House aren’t the typical immigrant population studied in the GWIK program, but Aiko says their needs are similar to those of other disenfranchised groups.
“They are a forgotten population,” she said. “People don’tlike to admit there is a problem. This is something people want to forget about.”
But Aiko isn’t going to forget about her experience at Shaw House.
“Being in the shelter has opened my eyes to the problems of homeless kids. When I go back to Belgium, I want to work with this population,”she says.
Casey at Elegast de Harmonie
The Elegast Centers for Youth and Family provide a range of social services in the metropolitan area of Antwerp. For Casey Faulkingham, the opportunity to work with this multifaceted organization was too good to pass up.
Any ambivalence she may have felt about leaving the University of Maine during her busy junior year, traveling alone in Europe or living in a foreign culture evaporated when she learned she had been accepted into the GWIK program.
“As soon as I got the email, I knew I was going,” she says. She arrived in Antwerp in January of 2011, hosted by Aiko’s Van Landeghem’s school, the Plantijn Hogeschool.
Assigned to the Harmonie center in an immigrant neighborhood of Antwerp, Casey, who also is 22, worked in a residential setting for about a dozen youngsters between the ages of six and 18. Most of the youth have been removed from the care and custody of their parents due to abuse, neglect or other serious problems. Some have been involved with illicit drugs. Most have deep-seated mental health problems.
“This is court-ordered protection for the kids while the families figure things out,” Casey says. But few of the children return to their parents immediately, she adds – most move on to different residential settings better suited to their needs. Some are placed in the care of family members but maintain contact with referral agencies and services.
While some of the families whose children are at the Elegast de Harmonie are Belgian, many come from other countries, including Afghanistan, Russia and Morocco. Some have been traumatized by war, revolution and political repression in their home countries and have come to Antwerp for asylum. They seek economic opportunity — or at least survival — but typically find themselves relegated to low-pay, low-status jobs in an intolerant foreign culture. Many speak neither English, nor French nor Dutch and struggle with a significant language barrier.
The children at the Harmonie center have many reasons to bedisenfranchised, Casey says. The center staff works closely with them as they participate in support programs, on-site educational tutoring and recreational activities.
“We participate in their daily lives and try to earn their trust,” she says. “It is our job to gain their trust enough that they will open up to us about their lives.” That relationship forms the basis for ongoing referrals to long-term placement, mental health counseling and other support services for the children who pass through Elegast de Harmonie.
In her semester-long field placement through the Plantijn Hogeschool, Casey learned a lot about the social underclass in Antwerp and about working with youngsters generally. Under the guidance of her field placement supervisor Jelle Correwijn, who came to UMaine in 2006 through GWIK for a faculty internship at Shaw House, Casey says the experience cemented her commitment to social work as a career path.
“I am really good with people,” she says with confidence. “I need to be helping people directly. As long as I’m not behind a desk all day, I’ll be okay.”
Life lessons learned
Both Casey and Aiko reaped many benefits from their GWIK participation. In addition to their field placements, both were enrolled in undergraduate courses at their host schools. They participated in the cultural lives of their local communities and made friends with fellow students, staff and others. Both were glad to return to their homes, and both said they wouldrepeat the internship experience given the opportunity.
Casey was surprised to find that her new school in Antwerp offered little by way of social activities.
“There is no campus life there. You go there for school and school only,” she says. Faculty members were supportive and engaged in her placement, she adds, but she had to develop a degree of independence and self-sufficiency. She shared an apartment with another American intern and quickly learned her way around the city, taking advantage of cultural and social opportunities. But the urban lifestyle didn’t really suit her.
“I found out I was not a city person. I could live anywhere if it’s not in a city, ” Casey says. “I was really homesick. I was very ready to get back on campus [at UMaine]. I just really missed home, I missed my house and my friends. But I would go back to Antwerp in a heartbeat.”
For Aiko, too, the GWIK placement provided a new perspectiveon college life.
“We don’t have a campus at all,” she said of the Plantijn Hogeschool. “It’s just a building in the city.” She enjoyed the experience of living in a dorm on the grassy UMaine campus, of being constantly surrounded by students and faculty. She liked the small-town atmosphere of northern Maine. She made a lot of friends.
Having met Casey Faulkingham briefly in Antwerp last spring,Aiko was happy to reconnect with her American counterpart when she arrived in Orono in the fall. Aiko shared a big Thanksgiving holiday with Casey’s family and friends in Houlton and even got exposed to the ritual shopping experience of Black Friday at the local Wal-Mart.
“It was crazy,” she said of the pre-Christmas consumer frenzy. “I have never seen anything like that. I loved it.”
In addition to participating in an online forum with other students in the GWIK program, Aiko studied social work classes on the UMaine campus. The toughest, she said, was a class on child abuse and neglect — not because of the sometimes-graphic cases the instructor presented, but because the U.S. system for intervening to protect children is so convoluted.
“I am someone who can handle that [abuse cases],” she said. “I would rather try and do something than to sit around and feel bad about it.”
Aiko has one more semester to compete before she graduates from the Plantijn Hogeschool. Her final project will focus on helping children with speech deficits develop resiliency to playground bullying. But after graduation, drawing on her experience at Shaw House, she hopes to build a career working with homeless teens in Antwerp.
Casey expects to graduate next May from the University of Maine and eventually go to graduate school. She plans to stay in Maine afterward, although her career plans are not yet firm.
“I was dead set on working with kids,” she says, but havingjust completed a two-semester field placement with Spruce Run, a project for victims of domestic violence, she is rethinking her choices. “Elderly people with mental illness, women, domestic violence victims … social work has alot of opportunities to change and move around,” she says.
So far, eight UMaine students have accepted international placements through the GWIK program, and the Orono campus has hosted four students from the European Union. A total of 17 U.S. students have participated and 14 E.U. students have come to host schools and internships in this country. Five U.S. students, including one from UMaine, are scheduled to participate in the fall of 2012.
Contact: Meg Haskell (207) 581-3766
Image Description: Aiko Van Landeghem & Casey Faulkingham