Students apply classroom training to engage, serve downtown Phoenix neighbors

Through ASU Community Collaborative, Westward Ho residents enjoy health-related, social activities ‘at the speed of trust’


Exterior of the Westward Ho hotel in downtown Phoenix.

The Westward Ho, formerly a hotel in downtown Phoenix, is now home of the ASU Community Collaborative. Photo by Mark Scarp/ASU

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Social work and community health care aren’t provided impersonally. The functions involve serving people where they are, especially when those doing the serving are a part of the same neighborhood.

By working at the Arizona State University Community Collaborative, students engage with residents of the former Westward Ho hotel, just off the Downtown Phoenix campus, through several health-related and social activities.

They include counseling, community assistance and referrals, opportunities for educational and cultural enrichment, music therapy, help with learning technology, health promotion programs, nutrition education and supplemental food provision, as well as generally increasing residents’ connections to one another.

The approximately 300 seniors and individuals with disabilities living at the 16-story historic Westward Ho, built in 1928 and today a subsidized residential facility, are receiving services from students who attend classes and live in residence halls a block or two away.

“A lot of times, what I say to my students is that we have an opportunity to interact with their neighbors in this iconic building,” said Kelly Ramella, program coordinator at the collaborative and an associate clinical professor in the School of Community Resources and Development.

“They look out their classroom window at this building and wonder who is inside. Then they get to go over there and get to meet the people. It’s a springboard for what they are going to do with their careers,” said Ramella, program lead with the the school's recreation therapy program and a member of the interprofessional team of faculty and staff who have made the hands-on learning experiences possible for students. 

“I have former students who were part of the collaborative years ago who still talk about it,” Ramella said.

Students and residents see each other in grocery stores and other neighborhood gathering places, Ramella said, breaking down an invisible line between the university and the community.

One undergraduate student said she will always remember her experience working with the people who live at the Westward Ho.

“I will always have a special place in my heart for the Westward Ho. This place became my first recreation therapy home by providing a safe and supporting space for me and my peers to practice,” said Nicole Megran, who is studying recreation therapy.

“One of my favorite anecdotes from the Westward Ho was creating a Hawaiian themed event, in which the residents had the opportunity to enjoy a day of activities, games, music and food with other residents, with the goal of promoting better quality of life, leisure education, a sense of community and belonging, and overall happiness,” she said.

Megran said she believes work with the residents provides great value to recreation therapy students who want hands-on experience creating, leading and collaborating with others.

“It’s a chance to make meaningful, accessible and adaptable programs for the residents of the Westward Ho community,” she said.

Located on the first floor of the Westward Ho, 618 N. Central Ave., the collaborative is administered by the School of Social Work, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. In addition to social work students, students from the Watts College-based School of Community Resources and Development, the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the College of Health Solutions provide services and therapies there.

The collaborative is mutually beneficial in that inasmuch as residents are getting and enjoying the services students provide, the students themselves are getting the chance to apply classroom knowledge to help real people, said Stacey Gandy, School of Social Work instructor and collaborative coordinator.

“While our goal is to provide services at the Westward Ho to provide well-being for a population that’s often overlooked, it’s also to provide students a real-world, real-time experience,” said Gandy, who said a colleague described the work as something so real for students that “once you see it, you won’t forget it.”

“Students can practice what they’re learning in the classroom. Once they know, they can’t un-know it,” Gandy said. “They can’t un-see issues faced by older adults living in poverty and isolation. It’s very much two-pronged.”

Residents are from many walks of life and have had a wide variety of experiences they share stories about with the students, Gandy said.

“Students get to know them as people. No matter how good the students’ skills are, if they can’t build a relationship, they’re nowhere,” Gandy said. “They have to be able to relate to them. We have a phrase: Move at the speed of trust, which comes from the book ‘Emergent Strategy’ by Adrienne Maree Brown.”

Ramella said one student knew how to knit and asked residents to bring their yarn. Within a few hours, a sweater was created.

A small group of residents meets weekly to discuss different topics. Recently, they discussed love and loss.

“The stories ranged from love of pets to love of family and friends. They’re beautiful,” Gandy said. “So many times, when someone becomes isolated, it’s easy to become stuck in a narrative. I feel through this, all of us, residents and us from ASU, can think about others’ stories and rethink through that narrative.”

Gandy said funds raised from donor contributions have paid and continue to pay for stipends for students and instruction on how to inform residents about services and activities. Donations also pay for providing food and coffee at events, art supplies and musical instruments, and corresponding equipment, such as tuners and board games. Gandy also said plans are underway to start a podcast and bring in occasional guest speakers on specific topics. 

The collaborative is working with South Mountain Community College to hold a series of storytelling workshops for the residents. The next one is April 8.

“It’s incredibly powerful for students and residents alike to be able to tell their stories, but also it has given them a way to think through their stories in different ways,” Gandy said.

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