Students at Stony Brook University have created Gifts of Gab, a social work project that aims to ease social isolation through remote conversation.
A research article on the project, entitled “Isolation in the midst of a pandemic: social work students rapidly respond to community and field work needs,” was released in the Aug. 20 edition of the Social Work Education academic journal.
Written by a team of Stony Brook professors and students, the article discusses the changing world of social work amid COVID-19. It delves into alternatives for field placements, including remote work, and how Gifts of Gab ties it all together.
Formed this past March, the project seeks to address one of the pandemic’s greatest side effects: loneliness.
“It feels like years ago,” Katie Carr, the founder of Gifts of Gab and a recent graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, said. “I was at the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead; there was talk of COVID-19, but I didn’t think it would take my placement away. It did. It was one of the first to get called off. I couldn’t even do it online.”
Still wanting to complete her necessary weekly field placement hours, Carr came up with an idea to help herself and her peers complete their required hours while also helping others through phone calls to those feeling socially isolated.
Carr wanted to create a platform for those in need of social interaction that would provide a meaningful discussion with a volunteer on a weekly or monthly basis.
“I wanted to be mindful of not getting anyone sick, while still being helpful,” Carr said. “The socially marginalized have been even more marginalized from the coronavirus.”
Carr, who struggled with social isolation while taking online courses last spring, felt she had to do something to help others experiencing the same issue.
“There is a lot of research showing that people who are lonely have a higher risk and a whole assortment of negative health consequences,” Dr. Zachary A. Morris, an assistant professor within the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University, said.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced people into social isolation, three in five Americans reported that they considered themselves lonely. Health professionals are now warning people to keep an eye on their social health in the midst of decreased social contact during the coronavirus. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that social isolation is not only unhealthy, but “a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity,” especially in older adults.
While COVID-19 has hurt the socially isolated, it has also caused a struggle for professional counselors. Leigh Fisher-Teche, a counselor at the Metropolitan Lighthouse Charter School in The Bronx, said working with students in the Individualized Education Program or who are experiencing socio-economic issues have made her job more difficult than she ever imagined.
“It’s challenging to provide support and counseling at home,” Fisher-Teche said. “I work with a variety of students; they can’t always talk to me in front of their families about their problems, goals and aspirations. We can do a lot better to support our families — to support their needs better.”
Carr, who has experience with web design, put together what is now GiftsofGab.org. The name is a play on the phrase “gift of gab,” which according to Merriam-Webster, is “the ability to talk glibly and persuasively.”
Once created, she then sent her website to a person she considers her mentor: Dr. Carolyn Peabody.
Peabody is a clinical associate professor and assistant dean for Eastern Long Island Sites at Stony Brook. She’s also one of the founding members of Gifts of Gab.
“I was expecting a paragraph when she told me that she had an idea,” Peabody said. “Instead, she sent me a complete website.”
With a full project outline, including concepts and protocols, Carr sold Peabody on the idea.
Carr and her newly formed team worked to spread the word of their service — this included reaching out to over 300 groups who would benefit from the program, like libraries and retirement homes.
Student companion Emily Dragone, a graduate student in the School of Social Welfare who made phone calls to her “Community Companions,” describes its team-based culture as a part of what makes the project so unique.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, she was completing her field placement at Hempstead High School. Soon after that ended, she was connected to Gifts of Gab.
“I was in that first group of interns; it was exciting to be a part of that team,” Dragone said. “Katie was always putting ideas out there. I learned how to work on websites, make newsletters, and be involved with something from start to finish.”
Another volunteer with the group, Robyn McGee, doubled down on these claims. To her, many field placements result in a simple one-on-one experience, which can result in feeling underutilized or doubtful of their own abilities. As she explained, Gifts of Gab is a team effort.
“Weekly supervision on Thursday mornings allowed for the team to discuss and plan outreach, share resources, and offer suggestions,” McGee said. “It was constantly evolving and adapting to serve as many as possible, as effectively as possible.”
Carr’s ideas about leadership, combined with the team members’ individual skill, resulted in a strong, team-based atmosphere for the project.
“The team put their strengths together to make a better group effort,” Carr said. “You shouldn’t lead from above. Rather, you should lead next to.”
So when Peabody was contacted on brief notice about a feature in the Social Work Education journal, she trusted Carr to make the proper decision.
“As soon as I told Katie [Carr], she was immediately interested,” Peabody said. “We had a short time frame, and I didn’t think we could do it, but it was her determination that got it done. She invited Prof. Morris and Emily Dragone along, and we all wrote it together. Honestly, it was a lot of fun.”
Dragone said that she is most proud of how the research article on Gifts of Gab might benefit future similar programs.
In the eyes of Morris, one of the two professors on the team, the most noteworthy thing about the project is its ability to teach its student companions the ability to react to sudden change.
“Whenever we can support our students, we need to encourage those opportunities to allow them to flourish,” Morris said. “They’ve built this from the ground up in a team setting. I have a 96-year-old [family member] that gets a call once a month from Gifts of Gab; they’ve adapted to what we’re facing today.”
But for volunteers with the group, like McGee, the most rewarding element of it all is the sincerity from the websites users.
“Connection is social work,” McGee said. “Recognizing and serving the vulnerable is social work. Gifts of Gab reinforces the importance of the engagement that we seek with every client we serve, but in a new and limited fashion.”
And though companions come and go, she loves that she’s helping others.
“It’s been a glorious experience that I am not ready to give up just yet,” McGee said. “I ask myself whether it is selfish of me to stay on: is it an urge of mine to continue serving my remaining companion, or the gift of learning from Dr. Peabody and Katie [Carr], but I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me. I was born with the gift of gab, so it just makes sense.”