Social work intern helps troubled children

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Dearborn Heights native Nicole Valentine, a spring candidate for her master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan, interned locally with Christ Child House in Detroit, a non-profit residential center for abused and neglected boys, and with the Plymouth-Canton school district.

Times-Herald Newspapers

HEIGHTS – With a name like hers it’s no surprise Nicole Valentine, 26, has followed her heart helping troubled children while pursuing her master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Valentine combines classroom time with hands-on learning helping children: first as an AmeriCorps volunteer, and later as an intern with Christ Child House, a residential treatment center for abused boys in Detroit. She’s now working with emotionally impaired and at-risk elementary and middle school children in the Plymouth-Canton community schools.

Valentine said her desire to help others stemmed from watching her parents struggle to get her brother Peter, who is two years younger than her and who has a learning disability, get the help he needed.

“My parents fought tooth and nail to get him the sort of services that he really needed,” Valentine said. “Watching how hard they had to fight, seeing how resistant some people were, (and my parents) really making sure he got the services that he needed to perform at a level that was matching what his intelligence is.”

A 2003 graduate of Crestwood High School, Valentine earned service hours for the school’s National Honor Society by working with summer school programs, a math and science camp, and as a camp counselor to fifth graders.

While in high school she also taught sign language skills to an autistic man in Dearborn Heights to help him learn to communicate with his family.

After graduating from high school, Valentine attended Michigan State University’s College of Social Science, School of Criminal Justice, where in 2007 she earned a bachelor of arts degree.

She then spent a year in 2008 volunteering through AmeriCorps, a U.S. federal government program that gives grants to local and national organizations to recruit, train and place volunteers in areas of critical community need, such as education, public safety, health and the environment. After their service some volunteers may receive educational awards up to $5,500 to pay for additional college courses or to pay off student loans.

Valentine volunteered in Worchester, Mass. with the Citizen Schools program, a non-profit organization that extends the learning day for at-risk urban middle school students.

She said for three hours a day Monday through Thursday they helped students with homework, math, reading and science games, and other activities.

One activity was an apprenticeship program where she and other teaching fellows and community volunteers, called Citizen Teachers, hosted workshops that taught professional or vocational skills needed in modern society.

She was very proud of the mock trial apprenticeship program she helped develop. The students formed defense and prosecution teams, and “tried” their case in front of a real judge and jury in a courtroom.

“I think that’s actually part of the reason I really realized that social work was where I wanted to be,” Valentine said. “I didn’t really have a name for it yet; I knew kind of what I wanted to do but I didn’t know what I (should) go study, what kind of a degree I needed to have to do this sort of stuff.”

She said she found what she needed at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, where while planning her classes and field instruction internship, Christ Child House, a residential facility for boys in Detroit, kept reappearing when she ran her search criteria.

She said she liked their mission and its proximity to her house. The facility can house up to 31 boys from ages 6 to 17. She said that many of the foster care children had been abused or neglected.

Some boys were abandoned or rejected by their parents, or lacked social skills, self-control or were chronically truant from school. Others had limited emotional and behavioral coping skills and had not been successful in foster family placements or in the community.

She said at Christ Child House they get one-on-one counseling at least once a week as well as additional structure in their lives.

As a clinical intern Valentine worked directly with two to three boys from September 2010 to April 2011, providing clinical therapy for them while they were at Christ Child House.

She said they also worked with the boys’ school social workers and their Department of Human Services workers. She said the boys most needed someone to be there for them.

“They have so many obstacles,” Valentine said. “Even just having to leave your family is a trauma, even if you haven’t been abused… there were some kids, you… read their case files and it just breaks your heart.”

She found the hardest part of her internship was helping a boy when an adoption placement with a family fell through.

“You don’t give a whole lot of advice, you don’t necessarily do problem-solving,” Valentine said. “I will sit and I will listen and… I will say ‘let’s work through this, let’s figure out the steps that you can take in order to make the changes you want to happen’ because ultimately it’s up to them to make the choices and make the changes to get back to a family or back to their family or into an adoption placement.”

“Ms. Valentine’s performance as a student intern at Christ Child House was outstanding,” said William Vanderwill, field faculty educator and liaison for University of Michigan’s School of Social Work. “She showed a remarkable ability to work with abused and neglected children. Her field instructor praised her ability to conduct individual therapy, lead treatment groups, and handle crisis intervention situations with professionalism.”

Following her internship with Christ Child House, Valentine began an internship in August 2011 with Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, where she will continue to spend about 16 hours a week through late April or early May of this year.

On Mondays she works at Fiegel Elementary School in Plymouth with a group of first and second graders, teaching them how to be respectful and get along with others. She also works with a fifth grade group of emotionally impaired students at Fiegel, teaching them teamwork and building self-esteem.

On Tuesdays she works with a student at West Middle School in Plymouth, providing one-on-one clinical and group care.

While she realizes some people roll their eyes and question how she is going to make a living as a social worker, she said she knows it is what she wants to do.

“But that’s what I think it comes down to,” Valentine said. “It’s meaningful to me so I’m going to do it even if it means I don’t have a fancy car or whatever else… and that’s fine.”