DUBOIS, Pa. -- In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Penn State DuBois students have continued to battle social issues, even if they’ve had to adapt to new methods. This semester, students in the Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) program teamed up with local nonprofit, Square One, to address the rising concern of the opioid epidemic in the region and how it is changing the shape of families. Specifically, students researched a rising trend in which grandparents are stepping in to raise the children of addicted parents.
The project came about as a means to help tackle a very real issue that community leaders are working on. HDFS Program Coordinator Jessica Clontz said, “I was contacted by Michael Clement, director of Square One, who explained some of the issues facing grandparents in this situation. Those include navigating parenthood the second time around, financially securing a lawyer to obtain guardianship, being able to afford clothes when living on a fixed income, dealing with grief, loss, and addiction in the family while raising small children, not knowing where to turn to gain guardianship in the first place.”
Square One is a nonprofit organization with a location in DuBois with a mission to help area residents thrive through social and economic issues. Clement explained, “Square One is designed to be outside the box. We don’t do a band-aid approach. We take a deep dive into the issues facing our communities.”
Clontz assigned this research through her class, “HDFS 447: Issues in Gerontology”, tasking students with digging deep into the numbers by contacting state agencies, school counselors, community members, police officers, nurses, staff at the Clearfield County Area Agency on Aging, and people raising their grandchildren or other family members.
Clontz explained, “In class, the students discussed their surprise to discover that over 2 million children in the U.S. are being raised by a family member other than their parents, largely due to substance abuse and incarceration. Pennsylvania has been one of the hardest hit states with regards to the opioid epidemic; therefore, the rate of grandparents obtaining guardianship of their grandchildren over the last decade has risen steadily.
“I designed a service-learning project to get the students involved in a modern issue facing adults and older adults in our local communities. I wanted my students to gain hands-on experience investigating a problem, gathering qualitative data, and proposing recommendations to enhance the quality of life for grandfamilies in rural Pennsylvania. Grandfamilies is the official term for grandparents raising their grandchildren.”
Clement explained how helpful the data gathered by students will be in his organization’s continued effort to battle the opioid epidemic. He said, “Now we have data to present in lobbying for legislation, finding new partners, and in finding new ways to help fight this issue. It was phenomenal. They dedicated a semester to tackling this real-life problem, and it has been really helpful.”
Students presented their findings to Clement and Square One during a virtual meeting. Originally, an on-campus presentation had been planned, but Clontz and her students quickly shifted delivery methods during the COVID quarantine. Clontz said, “In the audience were representatives from the Sustainability Institute of Penn State, Square One Communities, the NICU at Penn Highlands, and faculty and staff from University Park. Due to the current health crisis, the presentation was facilitated via Zoom but was nonetheless a complete success. Audience members congratulated the students for their efforts in bringing to light the obstacles grandparents raising grandchildren face and recommending local and policy changes to enhance the quality of life for grandfamilies.”
Students said the technology employed through the transition to remote learning became a benefit in the end. Student participant Caitlyn Manduley explained, “The biggest lesson I have learned throughout this remote learning period is how to be flexible with change. Luckily, technology gives us the ability to stay as connected as possible as if we still were in person. This lesson will benefit my skill set in future job positions. Having the ability to connect with professionals within our field has been an amazing learning experience. We were given a problem that Square One introduced to our class at the beginning of the semester regarding the topic of grandfamilies in our local area. With conducting our own real word research, we were able to combine all of our information, interviews, and recommendations while having the ability to present over a Zoom presentation with many professionals present.”
Student Erika Wagner added, “What I have found useful is learning how to adapt to change. Adapting to change is a good skill to have, especially in situations like this. I also found it useful that we were able to still continue as if we were doing in-person classes due to online technology like Zoom.”
Student Taylor Butler said the real-world lessons in hands-on research were incredibly valuable for herself and her fellow students, explaining, “I think it is an honor to be asked for our input which will help social service agencies grasp the specific needs in our local area. I also think it is important for us and these agencies alike because this is what we are studying and training to do; to help others, even each other. Sometimes it takes input from different perspectives to get the job done and create waves to make magic happen.”
Clement praised the students for their ability not just to adapt to remote learning, but also for their dedication to helping area families. “This was extremely impressive. The students did a fantastic job,” Clement said. “It was all professionally done and presented. They’ve done a real service to families suffering through this crisis. Their work is a game changer.”
Students who are in the HDFS Club and enrolled in the HDFS program are studying to enter careers in social work, as counselors for addiction treatment, and in behavioral health and probation. In their careers, they likely will be involved with organizations and their clients such as the ones they have touched through this project.