A new branch of the social work tree

by Matt Jardin  |   

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Rebecca Barker, M.S.W. '17, is the first in-house community resource coordinator for the Loussac Library. In this role, Barker serves as a conduit, making it easier for people to connect to the appropriate community agencies. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)Visitors to the Loussac Library in midtown Anchorage are immediately greeted by a quote adorning the lobby wall from Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling: "When in doubt, go to the library." It's sound advice that Rebecca Barker hopes everyone takes to heart.

"People come to the library with all kinds of questions. Some of those questions are, 'How do I build a log cabin?' or, 'How do I find out what my grandfather did for a living?' And some of them are more like, 'Where am I going to live next week?' or, 'How do I start treatment?' Those are way beyond the scope of your average library staff," explains Barker.

Barker is a graduate of UAA's Master of Social Work program and the Anchorage Public Library's (APL) inaugural community resource coordinator (CRC). Stationed in one of the more visible and highly trafficked areas in the Loussac Library, Barker serves as a conduit, connecting people, no matter what circumstance, with the appropriate community agencies, including SNAP Outreach, Alaska Mental Health Consumer Web and the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, just to name a few.

"Those agencies are really mighty, but they can't be everywhere at once, and everyone who needs a service doesn't automatically know where to go. Just because you're lacking vitamin D doesn't mean you know what to buy at the grocery store," she says. "What I do is ease the path for people to get the services they need and be the touchpoint of information. I think it really fits well with the mission of the library, which is to connect people to education, information and community."

The CRC program is the result of a joint effort between the Anchorage Health Department and APL, and funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Alaska Community Foundation and Recover Alaska. Barker's position joins a growing recognition to meet people experiencing vulnerabilities where they are. More than 50 libraries across the U.S. have similar in-house social work programs.

"It's building," says Barker. "What you're seeing is a new branch of the social work tree."

Established in September 2018, the CRC program is still in its infancy, but its roots date back to 2016. During that time, APL adult services librarian Sarah Preskitt saw the importance of having a social worker presence in Anchorage's libraries and partnered with UAA's School of Social Work to offer practicum placements to graduate students. Fittingly, Barker was the first of these interns and laid the groundwork for how it would eventually evolve into the CRC program.

So far, the response to the CRC program has been overwhelmingly positive. According to Barker, the initial metric for success was to connect 300 individuals to community services in the first year. Six months after launch, the program is well on its way to meeting that goal with more than 200 people already receiving referrals for housing, job placement, mental health, substance misuse, and food and utility assistance.

That number is even more impressive considering it doesn't yet account for the connections made by CRC's interns, which include Jessica Calderon, who will be earning her own M.S.W. from UAA this May.

Looking ahead, Barker is optimistic that the CRC program's performance will speak for itself and that permanent funding can be secured from the municipality. From there, the program can expand and add dedicated CRCs to other libraries around Anchorage.

Additionally, one of Barker's personal hopes is to develop a peer outreach initiative, inspired by similar programs she admires in Denver and San Francisco.

"The wonderful thing about peer outreach is that it reduces the barrier for engagement," she describes. "If someone is having trouble, they may not react the same way to me approaching them as they would to somebody who knows them. When folks have shared life experiences, they can connect a lot quicker and more effectively. So the peer outreach workers would be the folks who rove the library and do the initial engagement with patrons. I think that would be an excellent next step for Anchorage, because it's neighbors helping neighbors."


This story originally appeared in the UAA Green and Gold News.