by Jenny Tate

Making spirits bright – along with filling bellies with food, homes with needed items, and hearts with joy – is part of the goal of University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Gulf Park campus students, faculty and staff each November through the annual Golden Basket project.

Led by USM Gulf Park students in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Club, the Thanksgiving Golden Basket project supports South Mississippi families who are among the least food secure on the coast. This year, 10 families were pre-screened and selected from the Bay-Waveland, Long Beach, and Harrison County school districts and the Jackson County Head Start.

Teams consisting of USM students, faculty and staff ‘adopt’ a family and provide all of the items for a Thanksgiving dinner, as well as holiday presents and other basic items for their designated family, such as furniture, clothing, shoes and personal hygiene items.

The project began in 2011, when a student in the USM social work program working at a local Head Start agency saw a need to provide a Thanksgiving meal to a family who lacked food security. In 2012, social work instructor Karen Aderer formalized the project, leading each of the four cohorts of students – pre-social work, juniors, seniors and master’s students, as well as the social work faculty – to each adopt a family. In 2017, Dr. Casey Maugh Funderburk, vice provost for the Gulf Park campus, helped expand the project campus-wide.

Aderer has also integrated the service project into a meaningful out of the classroom learning experience for her students.

“From an educational standpoint, this event represents the service learning component that we think is so important to offer to our students. It is one thing to learn about something in a book; it is quite another to have to go out and actually carry out the critical thinking and work involved,” said Aderer, who serves at the BSW Club advisor. “My social work students get real world experience in interviewing families and then acting as the liaisons between the family and the team that adopts them.”

Students had the opportunity to interview families selected for Golden Basket, giving students like Tiffany Cole valuable hands-on field experience. Cole, a senior Social Work major and President of the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Club, helped lead this year’s Golden Basket project.

“I was the leader for the Bachelor of Social Work Club team. I made a lot of calls and going around to different companies simply asking for donations for the family. Advocacy is a big part of social work and it felt really good to really advocate for this family. I also had to stay in contact with the other officers of the BSW Club to make sure that all of the family’s needs were being supplied,” said Cole.

Families who are selected to receive Golden Baskets not only have food insecurity, but may have experienced a recent adverse life event such as loss of job, eviction or a house fire. They may also be behind on bills and/or lack reliable transportation.

Cole was also able to obtain that hands-on field experience by interviewing two of the 2019 Golden Basket families.

“I had the opportunity to interview two families selected for Golden Baskets this year. This interviewing process was a time for the family to discuss their needs and wants, but both of my families even wanted to discuss what led them to their situation,” said Cole.

“As a social work major, we learn about the Ecological Theory, that a person’s environment and surroundings have effects on that person. This actually brought what I learned in class into perspective, the ‘real world’ experience. After discussing the family’s situation, needs and wants, the family expressed their gratitude for all of the assistance,” she added.

In addition to acquiring hands-on field experience, Cole said the project made her step out of her comfort zone to ask for donations for her team’s family by reaching out to local businesses and individuals.

“I was able to communicate and reach out to different organizations and individuals to advocate for the family’s desires. This experience taught me that there are a lot of people in the world willing to assist, we just need to ask for the assistance,” said Cole.

Aderer attributes the success of the annual holiday event to working in a team environment.

“To pull off a philanthropic event like this, our faculty, staff and students have to pull together to plan, problem solve, assign tasks, divvy up donation seeking, and strategize set up and delivery. All of this is very team-building and ability-enhancing. It also shows our students the importance of giving back and helping to create a better community,” said Aderer.

As part of the annual project, Golden Basket items are gathered and staged in the Hardy Hall Ballroom on the Gulf Park campus, where participating teams displayed their items prior to delivery. Team members then deliver the items to the receiving family, meeting them for the very first time.

“When delivering these items and seeing the family become excited because of spatulas or wallets, it caused me to become more grateful of the things that I am blessed to have,” added Cole.