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Heartbreak, hope and healing

By Judy Berthiaume

Kristy Van Lanen  with children from Durban Children's Home
Kristy Van Lanen with residents of the Durban Children's Home.

Twice a day Kristy Van Lanen looked on as more than a dozen HIV-positive South African children took their anti-retroviral medication. It was amazing, yet heartbreaking, to see how easily the kids — ranging in age from 2 to 12 — took the medication without complaint.

"It was such a sad sight to watch the children — even the 2-year-old — line up for their daily medication," said Van Lanen, a December 2007 social work graduate who completed an internship last fall at the Durban Children's Home in South Africa. "Almost all of them acquired the disease at birth. It makes you wonder what their life will be like when they get older and what opportunities will be available to them.

"I think about how many children in the United States complain about not having material things like new clothes or a new cell phone," Van Lanen said. "Yet all these children want here is an opportunity to live and be something in the world."

Van Lanen and Ashley Walsh opted to complete their required semesterlong social work internship at the Durban Children's Home, an agency that houses 75 children and provides much-needed services to many others. Agency programs range from caring for HIV-positive orphans to substance abuse treatment to supporting children — some as young as 10 — who are caring for younger siblings after their parents have died or left them.

Van Lanen and Walsh shared a small living space in the agency's Amaqhawe Care and Health Center along with 16 children who were HIV-positive.

"I love to travel and experience new things, and I love to help people, so the idea of doing my internship in a place where social work is in high demand really excited me," said Van Lanen, whose extensive international experiences have included two yearlong tours in Iraq and Kosovo as a member of the Army Reserve's 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion out of Green Bay. "But while I was so happy to be there doing my internship, at times it could be very heartbreaking."

While Van Lanen lived in the special needs unit, much of her work was with the drug rehabilitation program, serving as a case manager to two children, ages 13 and 11. In addition, she worked with children in a program designed to help get teenagers off the streets and on a better path.

"I feel that I will be a better social worker after my experiences there," Van Lanen said of the long-term benefits of the internship. "I’ve worked with people who have drug problems, kids who grew up in the streets, children who are HIV-positive and kids who are now orphans. My clientele base was quite diverse there. With each new contact, I learned something new."

Like Van Lanen, Walsh also worked primarily with the agency’s drug rehabilitation program for boys as well as with the program that helps get children off the streets and into schools.

Walsh said the experience provided her with skills that will allow her to work with a variety of populations once she enters the social work field, noting that prior to her internship in South Africa she had been out of the United States just once.

"This internship has opened my eyes to some of the thoughts and feelings that minorities experience," said Walsh, adding that she and Van Lanen were the only two Americans working at the agency. "It is difficult to live in a culture where you don't speak the native language. It’s not only the verbal language that is difficult but also the nonverbal language."

The other agency workers spoke their native Zulu, the food was different from anything she had experienced before and security concerns limited when and where they could go, Van Lanen said of the challenges the students faced during their time in Durban.

Despite those challenges, the internship was an experience that will shape their lives in positive ways in the years ahead, Van Lanen and Walsh said.

"I now know that international social work is my passion," Van Lanen said. "I love working in different countries and helping people. I plan to continue doing social work in other places around the world, hopefully to make the world a better place to live."

Walsh, who also graduated with a degree in social work in December 2007, plans to work with disadvantaged individuals and families.

"I will be better able to empathize with clients because of this experience and the awareness it has brought," Walsh said, adding that the experience also has motivated her to travel more to gain an understanding of different cultures.

UW-Eau Claire has been placing social work students in internships in South Africa for eight years, said Nick Smiar, a professor of social work who initiated and oversees the international social work internship program. To date, about 40 students have completed their internships at Durban or other established agencies in South Africa, he said.

Smiar has had personal and professional connections in South Africa for 19 years, relationships that made it possible to create internship opportunities for his students, he said.

Students, who have long been aware of his work with child welfare programs in South Africa, began asking nearly a decade ago about internship possibilities there, Smiar said. It took time and a great deal of work, but Smiar was able to create an international internship experience that also allows students to fulfill all other program and accreditation requirements.

Students must pay their own travel expenses to get to South Africa, which is a considerable amount, Smiar said. But once they are there, two of the three agencies house and feed the interns, making it much more affordable for many students, he said.

"It’s a wonderful opportunity and great experience for our students," Smiar said. "They are exposed to a variety of programs and gain experience caring for and treating young people. They are interacting with children and observing and discussing child welfare with professionals at the agency. They are applying what they’ve learned in our classrooms and using those skills in a real-world setting. It really is a life-changing experience."

The students find their experiences in South Africa so rewarding that many return to campus wishing they could go back there to begin their careers, Smiar said. That's impossible because American social workers would be taking jobs away from South Africans, something that the government would not allow, he said. Instead, the students seek out rewarding career opportunities closer to home or in other parts of the world, he said.

Returning students also often have reverse culture shock; they're overwhelmed by the consumerism they see in the United States after spending a semester with people who live such elemental lives, Smiar said.

"They do a lot of soul searching during this internship and come back with much broader views," Smiar said of the personal growth he sees in students who participate in the program.

During their time in Durban, the students make significant personal and professional contributions — contributions that are meaningful to the children with whom they interact as well as to their South African colleagues, said Premilla Pillay, a social worker from the Durban Children’s Home who works closely with the UW-Eau Claire interns while they are in South Africa.

"These students bring another culture, and our young people are very curious," said Pillay, who spent time last fall on the UW-Eau Claire campus during her first visit to the United States. "Because of their newness, these students can reach out in a different way to our young people. They bring enthusiasm and passion, and they share their culture with our youth."

By exchanging cultural information, the students help the children develop pride in their own culture, Pillay said.

"Many of our young people want to be Westernized," she said. "But the students' interest in their South African culture reinforces the children’s pride in their heritage."

The students also bring with them knowledge about the American social work profession, which greatly benefits social workers in South Africa, Pillay said.

The social work department currently has three active internship sites in South Africa, Smiar said, noting that he tries to ensure that two students are placed at each site so they don't feel so isolated.

Smiar said the internship program has been so successful and the student interns so impressive that he has been approached by other agencies in South Africa asking to participate.

"We can't make use of all the possibilities that exist for our students in South Africa," he said. "I think that's a reflection on the quality of our students and our program."

Judy Berthiaume is director of the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.


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