Internships at LSSI
Filling a Need and Providing Real-World Experiences

Eye on LSSI, Summer 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Intern Elizabeth Enciso (right) shares a moment with Lucy, a member of the “Latinos sin Banderas Unidos” (Latinos without Boundaries Together) group that meets at LSSI's Portage Cragin Mental Health Center, in Chicago.Brad Booke created a mentoring program for teens served in foster care by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) in its education advocacy service. Elizabeth Enciso and a colleague developed a bilingual (Spanish and English) creative expression group for participants in LSSI’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation Program (PSR) at the Portage Cragin Mental Health Center. Jayme Wagley connected families with community resources via LSSI’s Intact Family programs.

Eager to learn and contribute, these individuals are just some of the students who have benefited from the agency’s numerous internships. LSSI, in turn, gains opportunities to expand its services and programs, and to foster new generations of social service professionals.

“Filling a need is where interns come in,” explains Elaine Pfluger, program director of the Legacy Corps program headquartered in Rockford.

For example, the launch of the Legacy Corps — a program that focuses on respite care for caregivers — might not have gone so smoothly without a computer-savvy intern. Pfluger’s first intern, Melinda Woods, was studying public health administration at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. She helped design new policies and procedures for the AmeriCorps-funded program and also created online forms for tracking Legacy Corps volunteer hours.

“We needed help getting the program off the ground,” says Pfluger, “and the intern got to play a major role in starting a pilot project and seeing it succeed.”

Learning While Making a Contribution

Depending on the internships, LSSI works with a range of academic institutions to fulfill the training requirements of its interns and introduces them to relevant in-the-field experiences. Schools demand excellent teaching and learning environments for their students, and LSSI complies through committed and trained field instructors who mentor, supervise and evaluate the performance of their interns.

“Interns extend our services to areas that we may not find the time for without them,” explains Keri Silk, an education liaison supervisor and statewide coordinator. Based at LSSI’s Augustana Open Arms, her team of two ensures that the educational needs of children in foster care are met in the Chicago area.

Silk’s intern for the 2004-05 academic year, Brad Booke, 27, started with little knowledge of the foster care system, let alone education advocacy. In the process of visiting schools, learning about clients’ educational plans and advocating for their needs, this social service administration graduate student at the University of Chicago came to realize the importance of keeping adolescents from dropping out of school.

“I was very ignorant of what was going on with the education of kids in the foster care system,” says Booke. “The numbers are low for those who finish high school, and less than five percent of those who do [graduate] go on to college.”

Focusing on eighth and ninth graders, Booke developed a mentoring project to give guidance and stability to a population of foster care kids most vulnerable to leaving their academic studies for good. He researched different agency mentoring situations around the country and eventually used the Big Brothers Big Sisters model to lay the groundwork for his project. The program he designed matches kids to mentors, who participate in activities ranging from helping with homework to expanding their world view. The program takes into account the unique characteristics of the foster care population, such as abuse or behavioral problems, and recruits volunteer mentors accordingly.

“There is a lot of responsibility riding on the shoulders of these mentors in terms of behavior facilitation,” explains Booke. “They need to know how to react as a non-parent if, for example, a child acts out in public.”

Booke’s program proposes recruiting former foster parents who may not want the full responsibility of another foster child but would consider mentoring; individuals thinking about foster parenthood; and students from nearby colleges and universities needing credit hours in the human services field. Booke presented his project to LSSI staffers at the end of May. There are plans to make the mentoring program a permanent part of LSSI’s education services in the near future, according to Booke, who completed his internship in June. Says Silk, “This is a project we hope to carry forth long after Brad is with us.”

“Pick of the Crop” Interns

At Portage Cragin, LSSI’s outpatient mental health center on Chicago’s northwest side, interns gain valuable experience as they assist clients. The program has seven spots in individual and group counseling services and two internships in psychosocial rehabilitation.

“We at LSSI really have the pick of the crop,” says Ken Hallas, internship coordinator at Portage Cragin. “We try to select a good blend and diverse group of interns, who often range in age from their mid-20s to 40s. Some have a great deal of experience in the field, and some [have] little exposure.”

While internships provide students with the skills and tools they require to become competent professionals, the learning process is a two-way road, or even a multiple-avenue journey. LSSI staff members have the chance to teach students, which helps the seasoned professional to better conceptualize what he or she is doing on a day-to-day basis as a counselor, according to Hallas.

“The staff looks forward to the energy and newness that interns bring with them,” remarks Hallas. “It is refreshing to listen to their ideas and the theories that they have learned in school.”

No amount of classroom learning, however, can replace the wisdom that comes with experience. Hallas and his colleagues gladly pass on the techniques and shortcuts they have picked up and refined over time. Recent intern Karl Kottke, 26, for one, appreciated the mentorship he received during his counseling services internship at Portage Cragin this past academic year.

“Each week I met with supervisor Ellen Blattner, and we would have in-depth discussions about all of my clients. She showed a lot of care and concern and wanted to know how I was personally handling my cases and whether they were causing any reactions in me,” says Kottke, who recently completed his master’s degree in social work at the University of Chicago.

Clients Expand Interns’ Knowledge, Understanding

Clients, too, can offer support and understanding. Elizabeth Enciso, 29, a counseling psychology graduate student at Northwestern University, had never dealt with persons with persistent mental illness before her internship at Portage Cragin. Relying on her Spanish-language skills and Mexican-American heritage, she worked with Latino groups in psychosocial rehabilitation programming at the center. With little clinical experience or a background in psychology, Enciso had to overcome her own trepidation relating to individuals coping with mental illnesses.

“In the beginning, I was intimidated. I didn’t want to speak and sound foolish and have my comments fall dead to the floor,” recalls Enciso. “The group members, however, demonstrated a lot of warmth and patience. They knew I was an intern and were very accepting of me.”

Enciso started her internship co-leading groups and keeping track of several client cases. Several months later, she began to lead groups on her own, as well as develop unique programming with a fellow intern to bridge the Latino group with the English-speaking one.

Exposure to the Real World

Julie Hanson, senior supervisor for Intact Family Services and Intact Family Recovery Programs, has mentored several students from her own alma mater, Loyola University Chicago, where she earned a master’s in social work. “I had an internship with LSSI, when I was a student, and it was a great experience,” says Hanson. “It is important for us to further the education of others entering the field.”

The Intact internship program frequently accepts first-year graduate students and exposes them to the workings of social work in the real world. Serving families with children who face a gamut of problems from drug or sexual abuse to environmental neglect or physical violence gives interns a realistic snapshot of helping this population.

“We help interns learn what systems are or are not available to support families,” explains Hanson. “We are exposing them to experiences they are not going to obtain in a school or a hospital setting.”

Intact intern Jayme Wagley, for example, not only honed her skills taking case notes and social histories and working with community resources, but she also acquired a certain degree of patience dealing with a somewhat challenging client base. “There were many times when scheduled appointments would fall through,” recalls Wagley, a social work master’s degree candidate at Loyola University. “I learned that everyone has a story, and families can often face difficulties with transportation or child care.”

At age 22 and a recent college graduate, Wagley at first felt vulnerable and very young when working with LSSI clients. Yet, her youth worked to her advantage. Many of the teen moms viewed her in a different light. “They didn’t feel as if I was judging them,” says Wagley, who plans on a career in school social work. “They understood that I was there to help them.”