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Alumni Profile: Jennifer Gardner MSW ’04

In the five years since her graduation from the School of Social Work, Jennifer Gardner has cultivated the habit of “supporting and championing Detroit,” a pursuit that has taken her to two diverse professional settings and has become a conscious personal commitment.

Upon graduating, she served for four years with Child Care Expulsion Prevention (CCEP), a statefunded program serving clients in Wayne County. “CCEP aims to improve the quality of child care, support the social-emotional development of young children and the adults who care for them, and promote school success,” she explains. During her tenure there, she assisted children who exhibited such challenging behavior as hitting, biting, or difficulty socializing that put them at risk of expulsion from their day care settings.

The biggest challenge of this delicate job was working with the families. “It was a scary thing for them,” Garner observes. “People were very fearful of social workers. They would ask, ‘Are you from Protective Services?’ For my clients, the stereotypical social worker was a judge, an intervener, someone who was going to take away their children. I had to recognize how frightening the experience was and gain their trust.” She also had to learn to “give them ideas, lead them in the right direction,” not tell them what to do. “It was very important for me to show parents and child care providers that my work with them was a collaboration, not just me telling them what to do,” she says.

After four years of service doing CCEP with two community mental health agencies in Detroit, Jennifer accepted a position with a managed health care provider. The feel of the job is very different. “Now I’m in the suburbs in a corporate environment, which is quite a shift from my days in the nonprofit world. As an early childhood mental health consultant with CCEP, I was always in the field in Wayne County.” But Jennifer notes an important continuity between the two: “I am still working with low-income families, trying to help the underprivileged.”

Jennifer continues to work with families and young children, but now also with adults and seniors, all of whom are Medicaid and Medicare consumers. “The majority of my coworkers are doctors and nurses. When they encounter behavioral issues in a Medicaid or Medicare member, or a substance abuse problem, they alert me and then I get involved and offer the help that I can give. I collaborate with the member’s primary care physician, specialists, medical case manager, mental health professionals, and other service providers to coordinate care.” Jennifer came to the School of Social Work after earning a BA in women’s studies from the University of Michigan in 2000. She considered graduate work in psychology to prepare for mental health work, but an advisor pointed out that a master’s degree in social work would be far more flexible.

It turned out to be a wonderful experience. “It was a tight community, with wonderful professors,” she remembers. “Leslie Hollingsworth was particularly inspiring to me. If I model my practice on anyone, it’s Leslie.” Lecturer Dan Fischer also motivated Jennifer. “I learned so much from his course on children and youth—through his class, I honed my clinical skills for working with this population.”

Managed care notwithstanding, Jennifer (whose SSW coursework focused on interpersonal practice with children, youth, and families) remains involved with the discipline of infant mental health. As a member of the Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health, she stays current with research and best practices. “This period of a child’s life is so important—particularly regarding attachment and social-emotional health; it is impossible to overemphasize how important it is for future development.”

And she spends a lot of time in Detroit. “It’s a great city! I grew up in northwest Detroit, and have fond memories of my childhood there. It was a tight knit community, and we knew all our neighbors and looked out for each other.”

—Elizabeth Leimbach Zambone is a freelance editor and writer living in Valparaiso, Indiana.

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