November 21, 2017  

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CATCHING UP WITH KAREN ADERER

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Karen Aderer is a clinical instructor in the School of Social Work at The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park Campus, where she also serves as a faculty advisor for the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Club. Recently, she took a few moments to talk about the Golden Basket, a Thanksgiving family adoption program founded by the BSW Club, that seeks to provide support to the least food secure families in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson County.

Q: Tell us about the Golden Basket and how it came into existence.

A: In 2011, I was teaching one class as an adjunct in the social work department, and we had a student working at a local Head Start, who saw firsthand how many families in the program lacked basic food security. She suggested the club adopt a needy family for Thanksgiving to provide a basket filled with everything they would need for a full Thanksgiving dinner, plus a gift certificate for a turkey or ham. It was such a hit that the following year, after I became a full-time faculty member and advisor for the BSW Club, that we decided to have each of our four cohorts of students – pre-SWK, juniors, seniors and master’s students, as well as the social work faculty – adopt their own family. Eventually, it turned into a competition where the final baskets were judged by other employees of the university, and the winners only win bragging rights, which has created great healthy competition. Because our students and community were so generous, it morphed into much more than a basket of food, and most families are now receiving things like clothing, shoes, toys, cleaning and personal hygiene items, gift certificates to local businesses, and things like bicycles, car seats and furniture.

Q: What all goes into preparing for this event each year?

A: In the beginning of October, I reach out to social workers at Head Starts in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson County to ask them to identify families in their programs who are either the least food secure or who have had a recent adverse event, such as loss of job, eviction, fire or illness. The social workers interview the families to find out their shoe and clothing sizes, toy interests for children, and their overall greatest needs. Each family then gets assigned to a group of students or faculty members and that group goes about the process of gathering items for their family.

Q: When this project first began in 2012, you were able to provide Thanksgiving provisions to five families. This year, that number has increased to 24. How does that make you feel?

A: Incredible! In the first five years of this project, only social work classes participated. Last year, one of our judges, Vice Provost Casey Maugh Funderburk, was so amazed by the amount of items our students collected and was so inspired by the enthusiasm, teamwork and passion they exhibited that she suggested we take this event campus wide. With the help of administration, we now have 24 different groups – both student and faculty led – who have adopted families. This year, our Social Work Club officers led a lunch and learn, sponsored by administration, to teach the groups how to fundraise.  They also shared personal stories about how this project has impacted them; if you have never delivered items to people desperately in need, it is hard to convey what it means to them. These baskets do not just represent food, clothing and toys for these families, it also represents absolute strangers caring enough about them to want to make their life better. That is powerful and transformative stuff.

Q: Students in the BSW Club play an important role in the Golden Basket initiative. What are their responsibilities?

A: I want to be clear that this project is entirely student led and all of the credit goes to them – not to me. Each class has a team leader who agrees to coordinate the donations, and each team has to figure out how they are going to divide up the work; where they are going to go in the community to ask for help; and how they are going to arrange, coordinate and then deliver these baskets. It is a lot of work.

Q: The Golden Basket initiative exposes students to the type of work they will conduct once they graduate with their social work degrees. How do your students feel about participating in this program each year?

A: The best part of this project is seeing how amazingly charitable our students are at USM. Many of my students are working, going to school, raising families and struggling to make ends meet themselves. However, when we ask our students to help, they ALWAYS step up. Also, the students who have never experienced poverty themselves express great surprise when they go to deliver baskets to families and notice the children are often more excited about the food than they are the toys. I remember one year, a family had elderly grandparents who were raising numerous grandchildren in order to keep them out of foster care. One of our students purchased them rocking chairs out of her own pocket. All students have voiced how participating in this project has helped them to connect to the feeling of gratitude and abundance that the Thanksgiving holiday is supposed to represent.

Q: In addition to students, what other supporters do you rely on to make this philanthropy a success?

A: We could not do this without our amazingly generous community! I start this project off every year by reminding students what a philanthropic community we live in and by telling them that there are people out there who are just waiting to be asked to do something kind for others in their community. In some years, we have even had businesses ask if they can adopt their own family. Our students receive donations from friends and family who own businesses, they do fundraisers at places that offer a percentage of sales that day, they approach their workplaces for donations, and also randomly ask other businesses in the community. Students have also received generous donations from their churches and faith communities, donated their birthdays to collecting food or toys instead of getting presents, and have even gone door to door in their neighborhoods asking for canned goods. In the past, we have had donations of gift certificates for things like haircuts, ice cream, meals, movies, free passes to museums and so much more. One year, we even had a local limousine company donate a limo ride to school for the children in a family!

Q: What is your ultimate goal for the Golden Basket and how do you see it growing in the next five years?

A: My hope is that as word spreads, we will have more and more groups within the university who want to adopt a family and more and more community partners who want to donate or adopt a family of their own. My ultimate goal is that participation in this event instills in our students a lifelong desire to be involved in charitable works in our community and elsewhere.

Q: Can anyone donate toward the Golden Basket? If so, how can they contact you?

A: Yes! All donated funds and goods go directly to families in need, and all donations stay within our community. We have no overhead whatsoever for this project, as everything we do is strictly through volunteers. We can guarantee that your donation will absolutely go to someone who needs it. Please feel free to contact me via email at Karen.aderer@usm.edu or via phone at 228.214.3225.