ASU School of Social Work pivots quickly to aid Tucson community in crisis

Thrive in the 05 program creates helpline, care boxes for vulnerable population

Tucson landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced every kind of institution to quickly change course, but for the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, the pivot has meant switching from one kind of helping to another.

Social work faculty and students from ASU have been working for three years on a program to help an underprivileged community in Tucson. The Thrive in the 05 initiative is named after the 85705 zip code, a 2.5-square-mile area near the city’s urban core that includes Tucson House, a public housing high-rise, and Old Pascua, a community of the Pascua Yaqui tribe.

“It’s a highly vulnerable population and social isolation is an ongoing issue, and now it’s been exacerbated,” said Mary Ellen Brown, assistant professor in the School of Social Work and founder and director of the Office of Community Health, Engagement, and Resiliency at ASU.

“This has heightened the loneliness, and so it was a natural transition for us to respond this way. We’re getting creative in keeping people feeling connected.”

In the two months since the crisis has hit, ASU’s Thrive in the 05 team has ramped up by organizing and training dozens of volunteers to help in the following ways:

• A helpline at 1-833-REACH-AZ to connect people to resources like food and mental health services, and to combat social isolation and loneliness. The helpline targets older adults but is open to all residents of Pima County.

• Helping Hands Care Boxes of household and personal supplies like soap and toilet paper to be distributed once a month at Tucson House.

• Wellness checks and social calls by phone for the Tucson House residents.

• Thrive Resource Café, a Facebook Live event that’s streamed every Tuesday through Friday at noon to publicize the help that’s available from different community agencies, such as how to get economic impact funding or avoid financial scams. The recordings will live on the Thrive in the 05 Facebook page.

“It’s been nothing short of a Herculean effort from a lot of people,” said Brown, who is director of the Thrive in the 05 Community-Based Crime Reduction Initiative.

“We’ve become experts on hotlines and a lot of other things I never would have expected.”

two people packing boxes

Jordan Prather, a first-year Master of Social Work student (left) and Kyle Koch, who is graduating this month with a Master of Social Work, unloaded boxes of donated supplies at the ASU School of Social work office in Tucson on Thursday. The supplies were sorted into care boxes to be donated to the residents of Tucson House as part of the Thrive in the 05 initiative. Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Brown/ASU School of Social Work

The ASU School of Social Work has had a presence in Tucson for more than 40 years. Thrive in the 05 is a federally funded initiative of the city of Tucson, ASU’s School of Social Work and several local partners that was started three years ago to focus on the Oracle Road/Miracle Mile area. The wide-ranging projects are meant to improve the quality of life through crime reduction, improving distressed housing and boosting businesses.

The first years have involved intensive communication with the area’s residents, with meetings, social gatherings and door-to-door visits. That frequent face-to-face interaction is crucial for social workers to build trust with people who need help, Brown said.

“We’re working to really understand and address the social determinants of health and crime,” she said.

“We started with a lot of listening. It’s very holistic and the residents are the core and the driving force.”

This spring, Brown’s team had just completed a leadership training program for a group of Tucson House residents and was set to begin with the second cohort.

Then, that deliberate, on-the-ground approach was upended. In March, when Arizona residents were told to stay home because of the pandemic, the faculty and students knew they needed to immediately help the community — from afar. Meetings were on Zoom and communication was done over the phone. Quickly, the team started creating the helpline, wellness checks and care box drive.

Many of the residents in Tucson House have disabilities and about 40% are older adults.

Michael Edmonds, who moved to Tucson House last fall, is on the executive committee of the residents’ council there.

“If you can think of it, our residents need it,” he said.

His Tuesdays are spent delivering food to residents, and on other days, he tries to encourage his neighbors to step outside and sit on the benches.

“There are ways to still get fresh air and to socialize, using masks and staying 6 feet away and beyond,” he said.

He said the residents appreciate the efforts.

“Thrive in the 05 is trying to do a lot of things, and they’re giving people hope.”

So far, the wellness check calls have been a positive experience for both the volunteers and the residents, Brown said.

“The volunteers let the residents take the conversation where it goes, and they’ve talked about everything from the loss of a loved one within the past few days to TV shows,” Brown said.

The wellness checks inspired the helpline.

“We’re trying to be a link that people can reach out to before they get to crisis,” Brown said.

The helpline is in partnership with the University of Arizona’s Center on Aging and College of Public Health and the Pima Council on Aging. The council has a phone line that connects older adults to resources like Meals on Wheels, but it’s “cold,” meaning that callers must leave a message and don’t get to talk to a person.

The REACH AZ helpline will be staffed 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and might expand the hours if there’s demand.

“We’ll be a bridge, giving them guidance on where to find resources as well as being able to transfer directly to a crisis hotline if needed,” Brown said.

“We’ll provide a warm ear to actively listen to people’s concerns and struggles.”

Thrive in the 05 has had two trainings for volunteers and is seeking more, especially people who can speak Spanish or other languages, to staff the helpline.

The new actions have been a fast pivot from the long-term support that Thrive in the 05 has been working on and was made possible by the many existing partnerships, according to Katie Stalker, an assistant professor of social work and associate director of the Office of Community Health, Engagement and Resiliency at ASU.

“Business as usual for us is assessing needs in our place-based initiatives, and figuring out how to meet those needs with existing resources or how to find resources to fill the gap,” Stalker said.

“And now we’re still doing exactly that but the focus is different because the needs have changed overnight. But we’re able to reach out to our existing partners in the community where we have that trust, and the cool thing is that we’ve developed more partnerships.”

The team was trying to find face masks for the residents.

“That’s not something we in our office could do, but I was able to reach out to an organization in the community that was sewing masks and I got a phone call that they are ready to deliver 200 masks,” she said.

“The same with hand sanitizer. A local distillery is providing hand sanitizer for our care boxes.”

At the same time the School of Social Work is trying to help the Tucson community, they’re also caring for each other. Students have switched to remote learning and everyone is cut off from the in-person contact they’re used to. Twice-daily check-ins help.

“We keep reminding each other to do what we can and not spend a lot of time making everything perfect,” Stalker said.

“There’s an immediate need and we’ll improve as we go.”

Jordan Prather, a first-year Master of Social Work student, is an intern in the Tucson office. He’s switched most of his work to online but has helped to pick up the food that’s donated on Tuesdays.

“Just once a week seeing the residents again and helping with that has made me feel better,” he said. “And we’ve been figuring out how to do that without putting ourselves or anyone else in danger.”

The daily check-ins have helped.

“It’s been a very supportive atmosphere and that’s been a big part of why it’s felt like an easy transition,” he said.

“This has thrust us into a high-pressure situation but when you see that you can perform well, that’s valuable.”

Brown said the new ways of helping won’t go away.

“We understand that social isolation is actually one of the grand challenges of our profession, and it’s a widespread issue even when there’s not a pandemic happening, so we intend for this to be long term.”


Thrive in the 05 is accepting donations of masks, hand sanitizer, paper goods, toiletries, household cleaning supplies, nonperishable food, bottled water, home electrical supplies such as light bulbs and fans, and entertainment such as puzzles, books and games. Drop off donations at two locations: Academy for Caregiving Excellence, 4723 N. 1st Ave., Tucson, AZ 85718, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday; and Brother John’s Beer Bourbon & BBQ, 1801 N. Stone Ave., Tucson, AZ 85719, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and noon to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information and volunteer opportunities, email, or call 1-833-REACH AZ (1-833-732-2429, Ext. 3).

Top image of Tucson by Deanna Dent/ASU Now