An Advocate for Aid

ATLANTA — An Atlanta woman, caring for her 19-year-old son with a severe form of autism, was unable to work, faced eviction and was close to having her utilities shut off.

Enter GSU Senior Paula Wilson. Wilson, working for Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Mental Health and Disability Rights Project, helped the woman mediate with the utilities to keep them running.

Paula Wilson - Social Work major Web profile“I always wanted to do something that made an impact on communities and individual lives,” said Wilson, who is working toward her bachelor degree in social work. “I always knew that I wanted to be part of a profession that helps people.”

All undergraduate social work students must complete a 400-hour practicum with an organization outside of the university. Wilson’s practicum is a little different – she decided to work with an organization, Atlanta Legal Aid Society, which helps low-income individuals navigate the complexities of the legal system. The project Wilson is working for helps to keep disabled individuals out of institutions like nursing homes.

“I wanted to do something that incorporated the legal system with social work,” Wilson said. “I’ve developed a passion for finding ways in which minorities and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can have access to the legal system. They’re often targets, and I want to help relieve pressure on those populations.”

People from impoverished backgrounds, facing extreme difficulties and a patchwork of financial and other assistance, often become discouraged, she said. Wilson’s work includes helping clients find the support they need, and to press for it.

“Many have struggled for a very long time, and get easily frustrated,” she said. “Sometimes, they don’t get their hopes up.”

Her superiors at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society are impressed with her work.

“She’s done very well considering she had a late start with us,” said Toni Pastore, a unit manager at the society’s Mental Health and Disability Rights Project. “She’s picked up on what we do. She’s already got her own case load, and working with our case management system, which we didn’t let many interns do in the past. She’s acting like a regular staff member already.”

C. Talley Wells, director of the project, said there’s a huge need to have a person with social work skills work with the society.

“We are a law office, but our clients generally have issues crossing over to social work issues, and we’re not equipped to handle those issues as well as a social worker would be,” Wells said. “Having someone with the passion and skills that [Wilson] possesses has made a huge difference in a number of clients’ lives.”

The Mental Health and Disabilities Rights Project has had other social work interns from GSU at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels, and has participated in other projects with the School of Social Work.

As for Wilson, her next step is to pursue her master’s in social work after graduation this spring. During her time at GSU at the undergraduate level, she said the university’s diversity has helped her prepare for her career.

“Engaging diversity and recognizing differences are big parts of social work, and they’re really important,” Wilson said.

Feb. 13, 2012