Social Work Students Honored for Alzheimer Patient Advocacy

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Team of six undergraduates wins the Influencing State Policy Award, the seventh time UW Tacoma students have garnered the national honor in the last 11 years.
The winners of the Influencing State Policy award advocate on campus. From left to right: Shelly Johnson-Choong, Jamie Dykes, Erin Dorgan, Billie St. Jean, Jessica Ball and Olga Dankovstev. | Photo courtesy Jamie Dykes.
The National Association of Social Workers says that social workers have a responsibility to advocate for those that can’t advocate for themselves.  And for the past eleven years, UW Tacoma social work students have been doing just that in Olympia, led by Professor Janice Laakso.
 
Their hard work has hardly gone unnoticed. In seven of the past eleven years, students from UW Tacoma have been honored with the Influencing State Policy award, most recently, a team from Laakso’s class last winter. 
 
Jessica Ball, Olga Dankovstev, Erin Dorgan, Jamie Dykes, Shelly Johnson-Choong and Billie St. Jean, all senior social welfare majors, received the award for their work advocating for a better Alzheimer’s care plan in Washington. 
 
Washington, in many ways a socially progressive state, is one of six states that does not have a care plan in place for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When people receive Alzheimer’s diagnoses, many end up without a clear direction for what they need to do next.  
 
“Most doctors aren’t really prepared to handle an Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” says Johnson-Choong. The students worked with the Alzheimer’s Association to pass Senate Bill 6124, which will help form a care plan for the state. 
 
This plan will give patients and their caregivers a guide to help deal with the unique situations that arise from the disease, encouraging early diagnosis and response and offering a referral plan to involve a neurologist or a naturopath.
 
The team in front of the Washington state Legislative Building on their lobby day.A Tradition of Transformation
 
When UW Tacoma was founded 25 years ago, community leaders envisioned a campus connected to the surrounding city. A quarter century later, students and their instructors benefit enormously from the deep-rooted networks of practices and relationships that tie the university to the region: a sort of transformational culture.
 
This culture is nurtured by faculty and students doing what they do: teaching and learning. Laakso’s work with her students is a perfect example of this.
 
Each year, in Laakso’s winter-quarter class Social Welfare: Contemporary Approaches, around 50-55 students work in small groups on a quarter-long advocacy project. Laakso began teaching the class in 2003, and began encouraging students to enter the Influencing State Policy contest in 2004, (which was also the first year they won).
 
“I passionately believe that all social workers should in some way be involved in advocacy work,” says Laakso, who was a social worker for 20 years before she got her Ph.D. and was the 2009 recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award.  “No matter what social work field you get into, there are opportunities to do this,” she says.
 
Laakso encourages students, first and foremost, to pick a topic they care strongly about. “That’s why our group did so well, because we all had a personal connection” to the disease, says Dykes.
 
Most students come into the class knowing nothing about lobbying, and need a lot of training. But in the end, Laakso says, “I’ve had wonderful feedback … that it’s a meaningful experience for the students.”
 
A Timely Topic
 
In early 2014, State Senator Paull Shin resigned, citing Alzheimer’s disease as a factor. That move helped set the wheels in motion for SB 6124. The UW Tacoma team working on this project contacted more than 250 care facilities around the state, asking their staffers to email and call their state representatives and ask them to support an Alzheimer’s care plan. 
 
“What was important was that it hit all around the state,” says Dykes. By the time UW Tacoma students got to Olympia for their lobby day, many legislators had already heard about the Alzheimer’s care plan.
As the students and their partners entered the gallery of the senate, they received a standing ovation from the legislators. “It was so nice to be acknowledged and recognized by the senate,” says Johnson-Choong.
 
Members of the team then split up and met with legislator individually to talk about the bill. “A big part of what made (those meetings) happen was all the people that we contacted,” says Johnson-Choong.
 
“We kind of harassed them,” laughs Dykes.
 
When they first started the class, both Dykes and Johnson-Choong say they were daunted at the prospect of contacting legislators. But the project forced them to overcome that fear. 
 
“I didn’t realize how accessible” legislators are, says Dykes. While it was intimidating, Dykes says, “I think going to the lobby day was the most important part of the process.”
 
Looking Ahead
The team of UW Tacoma students with their partner organization, the Alzheimer's Association, in Olympia.
 
In response to the students and their partners’ efforts, Senate Bill 6124 was signed by Governor Jay Inslee on March 27, 2014, and the students won the Influencing State Policy award last October.  Now, the team is planning to present on their experience at Social Work as Action: Confronting Injustice in Austin, Texas, this May, a conference for social work professionals interested in policy. 
 
Meanwhile, several members of the group continue to volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association as the nonprofit helps advance the state care plan. 
 
“I felt like such a small group couldn’t impact change, but it turns out we could,” says Dykes.
 
“This is the most profound experience I’ve had in a small group at UW Tacoma,” Johnson-Choong adds.
 
Laakso is teaching the Social Welfare course again this winter, as another group of social work students lobby the state legislature. As for the students’ consistent success influencing policy and garnering awards, Laakso says, “It’s not me. It’s the students. I just set up the structure…. They do amazing things, things I wouldn’t think of.”
 
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Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / March 10, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu