Stephan Blount stands before a group of Madrona Elementary sixth-graders eager to be set free after sitting in classrooms all day. On this particular afternoon, he’s teaching these young students about the best and worst ways to communicate.
“Let’s try a game,” Blount tells them, and the children’s faces light up instantly. “Everyone get in a circle. I’m going to whisper something in the ear of one of you. I want you to whisper that to the next person. When it’s gone around the circle, we’ll check how close it is to what we started with.”
It may seem simple — but through games like telephone, Blount, a second-year master’s candidate at the University of Washington School of Social Work, is working to change outcomes for youth through the principles of a program developed at the UW. It’s called Communities That Care (CTC), and its evidence-based content is now used around the world.
School of Social Work
Changing futures, one student at a time
For his social work practicum, Blount is helping implement Communities That Care principles through Communities in Action, a program where Seattle community-based organizations come together to increase protective factors and reduce risk factors to promote healthy child development.
Along with fellow UW master’s candidates Kelley Pascoe and Eric Agyemang, Blount is teaching students from schools in southeast and central Seattle.
“We’re working to deliver life skills training to middle schoolers,” Blount explains. “Our part began after a group of agencies came together to address things in their communities affecting their youth that they wanted to work through.”
How does Communities in Action bring about change?
Little League coach Aaron Parker is using Communities in Action principles to help his team succeed both on the field and off.
It takes a team
Applying Communities That Care’s social development strategy lets community leaders like Aaron Parker help young people learn how to choose healthy behaviors that lead to bright futures. Life, like baseball, is a team sport that requires good habits, hard work and supportive relationships.
The coach is the committed and clearheaded adult who sets the standards, such as showing up on time and playing by the rules of the game.
The team is a unified group of diverse players who share a common goal and follow the same rules, but also get to celebrate their differences and develop their strengths.
Communities are empowered when they connect with young people and provide meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive.
Bonding — with other youth, coaches, teachers and family and community members — is the magic that makes the social development strategy work, and it's what fosters lasting, healthy behaviors. Bonding is what motivates young people to follow standards for healthy behaviors and strengthens each step of the strategy.
The social development strategy emphasizes the importance of providing real-world opportunities for young people so they can develop new skills.
As young people master new skills, they build pride in themselves and confidence in their communities, which stand behind them.
Recognizing a young person’s newly acquired skills cements their sense of accomplishment and helps them build trust with the positive adults and peers in their lives.
Now that they’ve learned the social development strategy, children are more likely to choose healthy behaviors, like conflict resolution, over unhealthy ones, like drinking or doing drugs.
Communities in Action began in 2013, when more than 2,300 students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 responded to a survey about the challenges in their daily lives. Like the data from Communities That Care, the results showed that the students faced bullying, fighting, drug use and depression.
Margaret Spearmon, chief officer of community engagement and diversity at the School of Social Work, oversees Communities in Action with project manager Vaughnetta J. Barton. Their goal is to help communities use data about their youth to make informed decisions on how to meet kids’ needs — and develop a plan of action to meet those needs. While the communities drive the plan, local organizations and schools put it in play.
“The most exciting part about partnering with the UW has been the opportunity to work with knowledgeable, creative and talented partners who are committed to excellence in promoting healthy youth development through prevention programs.”
“Community-based initiatives are about empowerment. When communities use their own voice and data to identify challenges and make decisions about what they need to do, they are empowered and real change happens.”
I really enjoyed watching the students help each other. When we led games or discussions, students were always willing to support their classmates in understanding the material at hand.
School of Social Work
You can help today’s youth
By supporting UW students like Stephan, Kelley and Eric, you can help children access a brighter future for themselves and their communities.
Students have gained a lot of tools for decision-making and self-image, and this will go a long way toward helping them make good decisions in their daily lives and become responsible citizens.
School of Social Work
Inspired by his mother
Communities That Care is close to Blount’s heart. He was born to a 16-year-old single mother in Anchorage, Alaska, and during his childhood they often relied on outside assistance to cope with the challenges of everyday life.
“My mom was so young when she had me,” he says. “We had a lot of help from human service agencies while I was growing up. It taught me the importance of that type of work, and it gave me a lot of empathy for others facing similar challenges.”
It also gave him a direction in life: social work. To support himself while earning an undergraduate degree in human services at the University of Alaska, Blount took a job working in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities.
“It was just such cool work,” he says. “One resident at the group home was around my age. I could see how he became more independent when you gave him opportunities to do so.”
Healthy behaviors and bright futures
Fostering healthy, resilient communities is part of the UW’s Population Health Initiative, as well as a critical component of Communities That Care. In particular, a key tenet of the CTC program is that change must develop organically with the help of community stakeholders, rather than be imposed on them by an outside agency that thinks it knows best what a given group needs or wants.
Youth whose communities participate in Communities That Care are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Because the CTC program is evidence-based and draws on the strengths of the community it serves, Blount says he’s confident the program will change the outcomes of the sixth-graders he works with.
“I’m just implementing what the stakeholders have chosen,” he says. “They’re the experts on what they need.”
It’s clear that the model works. In the years since CTC was first implemented, numerous scientific studies have shown just how effective it is. Data from one CTC model shows that youth who participated in the program were 25 to 37 percent less likely to have health and behavior problems like smoking, drug and alcohol use, or delinquency.
In addition to improving lives, the program also offers significant cost savings: For every dollar invested in CTC, $5.31 is returned in the form of lower substance abuse and delinquency costs.
Alongside the valuable partnerships with community members, a big part of the success of CTC and Communities in Action has been student support from the Excellence in Social Impact Scholarship. Blount, Agyemang and Pascoe all received scholarships from this fund, which was established in 2016 to help reduce the debt load of social work students. The fund is transforming the School of Social Work’s ability to prepare highly gifted students to lead, innovate and serve in local, national and global communities.
For Blount, this financial support meant that he could focus time and energy on his studies and his students at Madrona Elementary. Even more important, it has helped him explore the career he knows he was meant to pursue. “I have always been set on doing some sort of human services or social work,” he says. “I don’t see myself doing anything else.”
Update: This story was originally published in October 2017. Since then, Stephan Blount, Kelley Pascoe and Eric Agyemang have graduated from the UW with master’s degrees in social work; Agyemang is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the School of Social Work.
What you care about
can change the world
The University of Washington is undertaking its most ambitious campaign ever: Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World. Your support of students like Stephan Blount, Kelley Pascoe and Eric Agyemang and programs like Communities That Care propels our global community forward, giving all children the chance to reach their fullest potential.