UCF’s School of Social Work in the College of Health and Public Affairs has been awarded the 2017 Program Partnership of the Year by Easterseals Florida in recognition of its three-year service learning partnership with the organization.

Since fall 2015, more than 50 undergraduate social work students have delivered more than 1,000 hours of service. The students have played a central role in allowing Easterseals to deliver an intergenerational art program, “Opening Minds through Art,” which helps people with neurocognitive disorders. The program is one of many art-based activities offered at Easterseals’ Winter Park adult healthcare facility, Day Break at the Miller Center.

“Students have an opportunity to apply the knowledge they are learning in the classroom regarding cognitive and physical impairments later in life to learn how adult daycare services are delivered,” said Denise Gammonley, an associate professor of Social Work who started the partnership as a service learning experience for her students.

While most of the students participating are juniors, Gammonley says, they haven’t had many opportunities yet to practice their skills outside of the classroom. Through this partnership, students get hands-on training with Day Break members and staff members, in addition to better understanding social work principles.

“It has helped to confirm my career goal of wanting to work with elders and people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s,” said Nicole Shea, a senior in Social Work. “I really enjoy working at Easterseals and have become close with some of the members.”

Easterseals Activity Director Jose Santana says UCF students are a great benefit to the facility. Because the art program is a one-on-one activity, the facility wouldn’t be able to provide it without student volunteers.

“They get so connected,” he said of the students and members working together. While initially some students are unsure about how they’ll interact with the Day Break members or what they’ll talk about, Santana says they quickly develop deep bonds. “I see that all the time,” Santana said. “I would love to see more of it.”

Sanatana can relate, since he also is a UCF student, expected to graduate this week with a bachelor’s degree in Health Services Administration. He began working in the kitchen at Day Break while still in high school. “It truly changed my heart,” he said. “When you’re in a room with members here, you fall in love with it.”

After earning an associate degree from Valencia College, Santana transferred to UCF with the intention of pursing an engineering degree. But his job led him down a different path, and he will be promoted to center director at Day Break upon graduation.

Suzanna Caporina, senior vice president of innovation and impact for Easterseals Florida, also underscores the importance of the partnership with UCF. “The interactions between students and members are powerful, and it makes them happy,” she said. “Several of our members have cognitive impairments and struggle with agitation. Our job is to engage them, make sure they are safe and happy – enhancing their quality of life. The students bring a lot to that.”

Similarly, Gammonley praises partnership and its future. “Day Break has a very committed staff and is very motivated to see this program work,” she said. “Students who have participated in the program have gone on to volunteer afterward and even been employed after their service learning experience there.”