Joy Chuba is devoted to helping child abuse victims.

For the past five years, she has served as both the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Osceola County and head of the county’s child abuse prevention task force.

Chuba already brings passion and innate leadership skills to these roles, but for the past year, she’s had the added benefit of more advanced skills in social work thanks to the new part-time Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program being offered at University of Central Florida’s Valencia Osceola campus in Kissimmee.

UCF launched the program last fall as the first graduate program offered in the county. Students in the program resume classes this week after a short summer break.

An M.S.W. prepares social workers for leadership roles and is usually required for supervisory, administrative and staff training positions. The degree also is required for clinical work and for positions in health and school settings.

“The program is really helping me grow as a professional,” Chuba said. “I have a much better understanding about the social factors that influence individuals. I also have a better understanding of how to navigate the systems and advocate for services on a much larger scale.”

And she’s not the only one benefiting from the training. The 27 students currently in the program work with vulnerable populations in a range of capacities. Class members include a counselor from Park Place Behavioral Healthcare, a social worker from Osceola Regional Medical Center, the social work director of Avanté Nursing Home at St. Cloud, four child protective investigators from the Florida Department of Children and Families, and several juvenile justice probation officers.

Osceola County needs more people highly trained in social work, said Susan Crutchfield, head of the Children’s Cabinet of Osceola County and secretary of the county’s Community Alliance, which oversees the foster care system there. Crutchfield said few individuals working with children in the county have the advanced training UCF has made available in the county.

“Our number of child abuse cases per capita exceeds all of the surrounding counties and is way up from this time last year,” Crutchfield said. Cases of domestic violence and substance abuse are on the rise as well.

“Most of our families have to travel to Orange County for services,” she said. “We need highly educated, qualified individuals in Osceola County to help us find solutions, to help these families and to provide more resources.”

The program, which was made possible with the expert help of UCF Regional Campuses, is geared for working professionals in mind, which is why it is part-time. That means participants like Chuba can continue to do their very important work work full-time while pursuing the advanced training.

Agencies with employees in the program also benefit because the employees return from the classroom with new knowledge and ideas about their work.

The Osceola branch of Youth and Family Alternatives has five employees enrolled in the M.S.W. program in Kissimmee.

“These are people who go out and do adoption home studies and assess potential foster parents,” said Osceola M.S.W. Program Coordinator Marixa Salgado. “They already have new insights about what they’re doing in their jobs. When they graduate in 2013, that agency is going to be incredible.”

Salgado, who was largely responsible for recruiting the first cohort of students to the program, said she anticipates the members of this class will make significant changes in many lives.

“It’s an amazing cohort of students,” Salgado said.

John Ronnau, director of UCF’s School of Social Work, agrees. He also said the diversity within the class  – 75 percent of the class members are Latino or African American – will make this group especially effective in their community work. Osceola County has seen a significant increase in its Latino population in the past three decades.

“Students in a cohort learn from one another, so the students in this group will be especially culturally competent, meaning they will be keenly aware of the traditions, values and beliefs of the major client groups they serve,” he said.