West Virginia University - Eberly College of Arts and Sciences

Making a home among the stacks

Newswise — Since transferring to West Virginia University in fall 2017, Connecticut native Déja Fleury has found a home-away-from-home in Morgantown. Nearly three years later, the social work major is helping the local library feel more like home for its patrons. 

“I started college at a small state school, but I wanted an experience at a larger campus with more opportunities, and that’s why I chose to transfer to WVU,” she said. “WVU’s School of Social Work really drew me because of the opportunities to get involved and volunteer. You can tell that the program is dedicated to serving the community and that there are a lot of opportunities here.”

The senior teamed up with Milan Puskar Health Right, a free healthcare clinic for West Virginia residents who are low-income uninsured or underinsured, to offer social services at the downtown branch of the Morgantown Public Library.

“We’re really excited to have Déja with us to navigate this new initiative,” said Caitlin Sussman, a social worker at Milan Puskar Health Right and Fleury’s placement adviser. “The library director and I were looking for a special person, and she has absolutely lived up to that standard. She makes me a proud social work teacher.”

The clinical placement with the Morgantown Public Library and Health Right is new for spring 2020. The School of Social Work sought an undergraduate student who could conduct a needs assessment and offer a social work presence in the library.

Through this project, Fleury aspires to change the narrative around stigmas about the area’s homeless population. 

“Because of my interest in substance use treatment and my previous experience working at a downtown business, I was already familiar with some of the homeless population in the area and understood how students perceive the population versus what it’s like in reality,” Fleury said. “A lot of people assume these individuals are dangerous. In reality, I work downtown almost every day, and the interactions I have had with the homeless population in Morgantown is by far the best interactions I’ve had compared to other places.”

Fleury is conducting a needs assessment with library staff. That data will be used to inform trainings for the staff. Even though the library is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is able to complete the assessment virtually.

“We are working toward destigmatizing initiatives with the library staff so they feel more comfortable working with patrons who are in need of social services. I am surveying the staff to get an idea of what support they need and what we can do to mediate and help. This will help the staff feel more comfortable answering questions related to social services,” Fleury said. “Once we have the needs assessment and understand where they’re at, I’d like to do an educational intervention informed by what the library staff wants to learn.”

The two organizations hope to work together to best support the community.   

“In the last year, we’ve been making connections and talking about how both organizations serve similar populations. When one of our facilities closes, the downtown library sees an influx of our clients. We’ve been talking about how we can support the library and vice versa,” Sussman said. “We decided it would be important to have a social work presence. We knew we needed someone who was highly motivated and ready to do something that no one had done before, and Déja was it. She is breaking new ground, which is exciting.”

In summer 2019, Fleury studied abroad with the School of Social Work, supporting social work initiatives in Vietnam and Cambodia. She also attended workshops at An Giang University on social and community health issues, including domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and human trafficking.  

“It was an amazing experience,” Fleury said. “I gained a unique global perspective on many social work-related issues that exist in both developed and developing countries but affect societies in different ways.”

After graduating in May 2020, Fleury aspires to work as a counselor for individuals with substance use disorders or mental health needs.

“I’ve always been interested in helping professions and mental health outreach. I initially wanted to work in foster care. Then, throughout college I developed a strong passion for individuals going through substance use treatment,” Fleury said. “I would like to work as a social worker at schools or women’s prisons or even open my own counseling and mental health treatment facility.”

This article is part of a series highlighting WVU School of Social Work students during National Social Work Month.

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