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Social Work Major Helps Young Students Harness Their Voices

As a Public Achievement volunteer, Ellie McDowell ’21 helped fourth graders create and print Dr. Seuss-style books, make posters, and present to the St. Paul City Council to raise awareness around littering and pollution on their playground.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

September 20, 2019 | 10 a.m.

Ellie McDowell ’21

Ellie McDowell ’21, a social work major, is helping young people make their voices heard at St. Paul’s Maxfield Elementary School. Along with volunteering through Public Achievement, which empowers young students to work on a public project, she is interning with the school’s social worker.

A fourth grade boy stood before the St. Paul City Council this spring and summarized his Public Achievement group’s goals: “We want to not be mean and keep our earth clean,” he said.

The boy and his Maxfield Elementary School classmates also presented books they wrote and illustrated to promote environmental causes. “Our group wanted to raise awareness about littering and pollution because we see trash throughout our community,” another boy told the City Council. “Our playground at school also has a lot of trash on it and around it.”

Ellie McDowell ’21, a Bethel social work major, smiled off to the side as the students spoke to the council. As a Public Achievement volunteer, McDowell helped empower the students to voice their opinions and share their stories through their projects. “I have a new appreciation for youth and the power they carry in their stories and their voices,” McDowell says. “When these students are held to high expectations, they go above and beyond what is expected of them.”

McDowell started volunteering with Public Achievement—a Bethel partnership program that empowers young students to work on a public project—in February as part of her Intro to Social Work class. The students voiced concern about littering and pollution since they frequently saw litter on Maxfield Elementary School’s public playground. McDowell worked with five Maxfield Elementary School fourth graders to help them develop a project around the issue. McDowell and two other coaches met with the children each Wednesday to develop and research their project.

Those kids were extremely confident about what they learned and they were passionate—they wanted to see change in their community.

— Ellie McDowell ’21

McDowell and her fellow coaches helped the kids find ways to raise awareness about littering and pollution. They made posters, but the students also all enjoyed writing and art. So each created a Dr. Seuss-style book about the environment. With the students interested in pollution’s effects on nature, many of the books featured animals. And the students harnessed their creativity as one book took place in space and another was based underwater. “Those kids were extremely confident about what they learned and they were passionate—they wanted to see change in their community,” McDowell said.

McDowell and the other coaches wanted the books to look professional to showcase the students’ skills and hard work. McDowell approached Bethel’s Print Services to help publish the books, and an anonymous donor funded the printing.

Along with presenting to the St. Paul City Council, the Maxfield students also shared their projects and helped pick up litter at a citywide cleanup event in St. Paul. The fourth graders also pitched in close to home. McDowell and her group volunteered to pick up trash from their playground, something the students had wanted to do for some time. “They were so eager about doing that,” McDowell says. “Seeing just how rewarding that was for them, it was cool to see.” As one boy told the City Council, they filled two 5-gallon garbage bins in 30 minutes.

McDowell found it rewarding to see the students’ work pay off. She witnessed the power of children’s voices when they are given chances to speak. “And as a social worker, giving the chance to speak and helping people use their voices when they don’t necessarily have the platform to do so was very rewarding and eye-opening,” she said.

Maxfield students took on many important issues. At the end of the projects, all the Public Achievement groups shared their work in the Maxfield library. Other projects explored issues like gun violence and homelessness.

As a social work major, McDowell hopes to continue finding ways to help children use their voices through citizenship and service. Her experience with Public Achievement could permeate through her life after Bethel. She is considering one day working in a school setting, though she is also exploring other interests, such as prison reform. “I had a blast, and it was an awesome time to get to hang out with the kids,” McDowell says.

McDowell encourages other Bethel students to participate in Public Achievement. “It is an awesome opportunity to learn about advocacy and empowerment, and the power of youth enacting on change in their community,” she says.

And the students taught her a lot as well. “I am also learning through these students the power of my own story and voice,” she said.

McDowell is volunteering again through Public Achievement this school year at Maxfield, and she’s also interning with the school’s social worker.

Bethel students talking

Study social work at Bethel.

Bethel’s Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (B.S.W.) program prepares students to work compassionately with clients to understand their strengths, assess their needs, and provide intervention and resources. But at Bethel, training goes beyond just meeting physical needs. The program is built on a deeply-rooted Christian perspective that considers social justice, reconciliation, ethical practices, and human rights—honoring the dignity and worth of all persons.

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