Amy Colver, LCSW
Melody Griffith, MSW, LMSW, OSW-C
AOSW Communications Director
Jeanice Hansen, LCSW, OSW-C
To submit a story or information for inclusion in a future issue of AOSW Newsletter, contact Amy Colver or Melody Griffith on the list above.
Creative Flexing: Building Community for Kids, Teens and Families Facing Cancer in a Remote World
By Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C
Do you remember a time, not that long ago, when you didn’t know what Zoom was? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had to learn a new platform so quickly! I’ll never forget the flurry of action in March 2020 when our small team at Gilda’s Club Madison had to quickly learn the ins and outs of using Zoom so we could seamlessly provide programs to our community who couldn’t afford to miss a week of support.
We had confidence our adults could manage the shift to virtual, but I was wary about how a screen could maintain continuity for our kids and teens. As a parent, I knew households were scrambling to figure out virtual school, childcare and working from home (if they were lucky enough to still have a job). Many families were suddenly navigating the acute crisis of unemployment, loss of housing, or loved ones who were sick or dying from COVID. I don’t think many of us ever read the playbook on how to be a social worker in a worldwide pandemic.
Approaching this challenge from a quintessential social work mindset, it just became about trying. “Let’s figure it out!” became our new mantra. What other choice did we have? Though we didn’t have all the answers, the ethics of providing service during a time of high need trumped everything.
And so began my journey of remote programming for kids, teens and families facing cancer. More recently, I transitioned into my role at Bright Spot Network and I had to get comfortable with virtual support since 99% of our programs are remote in order to serve families across the country. I had to throw out the old bag of tricks and cultivate a new mindset.
I’ve learned a great deal over the past three and a half years, and continue to add new techniques to my digital toolbox. Here are some key takeaways:
- Kids are digital natives. They pick up new web-based platforms as a means to connect much more quickly than adults (because most of them were already doing it!). Kids and teens in my groups were teaching me how to navigate the nuances of Zoom or whatever app we were using. They knew how to apply fun filters, use avant garde apps to play interactive games, and how to appropriately use mute (which my adult groups were still struggling with…and still do).
- Boundaries are different when you get a glimpse into someone’s home. Kids LOVE to show you their bedroom, favorite stuffy, pets, new shoes, and everything else in their home. If you give them the time and space, this can create immediate rapport and build quick connections between kids. Seeing where someone actually eats and sleeps can also cause a great deal of distraction as well. An effective facilitator will build in time for show and tell so they can hold an expectation of focus during the remainder of the group time.
- A lot of the tools in the social worker’s kid and teen toolbox do not work on a screen. If you work with kids, you know that interactive activities are the key to engaging them in psychosocial support. Art projects tend to work well remotely–everyone can respond to a prompt in their own space and share it on screen. But collaborative projects and physical activities need to be significantly adapted, or completely nixed. This is an amazing opportunity for us to flex our creative muscles! Use their environment to your advantage. Get them running around their house on a scavenger hunt tailored to your group theme. Incorporate a pet show and tell (bet you haven’t done THAT in your in-person groups!). Use shared whiteboards to get kids drawing together or adding thoughts to a project. Just because kids are at home, physically distant from the other kids in their group, doesn’t mean you can’t get them interacting with each other. Interestingly, I’ve found some kids seem to prefer participating virtually because they are in a safe, familiar environment that helps them to open up. Many kids are more willing to share and be honest if they are on a screen.
- Being virtual opens up new opportunities! I’ve taken my groups of kids and teens on so many field trips that we could never have done in-person. One of my favorite activities was taking a virtual tour of a lab developing cancer treatment drugs, which isn’t typically open to the public, especially children. We’ve had a slew of amazing professional guest leaders, including authors, magicians, musicians, martial artists and yoga instructors who could not have shown-up in person at our group.
- Virtual groups tend to be more inclusive. Even after the COVID vaccine arrived, many families were hesitant to be in public spaces. Other factors, including the cost of gas and transportation and lack of childcare, have kept families at home. Additionally, many families across the U.S. don’t live near organizations that provide psychosocial support. Being able to log-on to a virtual support group connects them in ways they may not have access to otherwise. There are, of course, significant disparities we cannot ignore. Families who do not have access to the internet or devices that connect to the internet cannot access virtual support. Even if families have access to technology, their homes may not be safe or conducive to participating in virtual support. Some children do not like being on a screen or have a difficult time focussing. Continuing to program for these families is essential, as well as our ethical duty to advocate for increased access to services for marginalized populations.
- Not all remote connections need to be live. We know folks like choices! Not everyone likes a synchronous connection. At Bright Spot Network we’ve created asynchronous activities that build connections between kids, including a Valentine’s Day card exchange, a Pen Pal program, and Bright Birthday cards. Just last month a mom told me that her 11-year-old son finally opened up to her about his fears regarding her cancer diagnosis after learning that the teen who made his Bright Birthday card also had a mom with advanced cancer. He told her the card was a “treasure” and he would keep it forever.
There is so much more I want to share about remote programming for kids, teens and families that I’ve decided to submit an abstract for the 2024 AOSW Conference. If this topic interests you, stay tuned! Hopefully I’ll see you at the virtual conference next June.
About the Author
Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-CDirector of Programs and Community Outreach
Bright Spot Network
Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C, is the Director of Programs and Community Outreach at Bright Spot Network, which provides a program of support to parents with cancer who have young children. She has 15 years of clinical and program experience workin...
Read Full Author Bio
Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-CDirector of Programs and Community Outreach
Bright Spot Network
Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C, is the Director of Programs and Community Outreach at Bright Spot Network, which provides a program of support to parents with cancer who have young children. She has 15 years of clinical and program experience working with families facing cancer. Her professional passion is supporting kids and families who are navigating cancer, shaped largely by her father having lung cancer when she was a child and her step-father’s diagnosis of liver cancer when she was a young adult.
Carissa has been a member of the Association of Oncology Social Work since 2015 and presently sits as co-chair of the Youth, Families and Cancer Special Interest Group. She enjoys traveling around the country giving presentations and writing articles for cancer magazines and blogs. She recently finished co-authoring a chapter on cancer in middle adulthood for the upcoming Oncology and Palliative Social Work: Psychosocial Care for People Coping with Cancer textbook published by Oxford Press.
Carissa is also a Long-Term Lecturer at the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches courses on grief and loss, as well as a generalist practice course with individuals, families and groups.
Carissa has a private psychotherapy and consultation practice where she specializes in cancer, chronic illness, caregiving, grief and loss, child and adolescent development, family systems, and issues relating to the LGBTQIA+ community. She enjoys supporting front-line staff at non-profit organizations through in-services, trainings and short-term support groups.
Carissa lives outside of Madison, Wisonsin, with her social worker wife, 8-year-old son and two silly pups. She looks forward to time spent with family meandering through the prairies near her home, taking up a new craft, playing board games, and taste-testing her wife’s hand crafted chocolates.
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