Waking Up to Social Change

Published October 22, 2019

By: Mike Gluck

“I’m trying to take a clinical route, so this experience is really going to help me work with people of different backgrounds, analyze data, use research, and work in a tight timeframe.”
Jake Friedman, MSW student

Where did you sleep last night?

For too many children in Buffalo, the answer is heartbreaking: on the floor.

Almost half of the children in Buffalo live in poverty. That’s 27,000 kids—enough to fill nearly every seat in UB Stadium. It’s the fourth-worst youth poverty rate in the country, a jarring statistic with real-life consequences: not enough food on the table, not enough heat in the winter and not enough beds at night.

This is why three UB students from three separate disciplines joined forces in the summer of 2019 to find a practical solution—helping a local nonprofit build more beds for children in need.

Dreaming of a better Buffalo

Sleep is one of the most important factors in a child’s general well-being and academic success. Children who get a full eight hours of sleep earn better grades and may be less likely to drop out of school. Healthy sleep helps kids focus, retain information and manage their emotions throughout the day, but it’s difficult to get high-quality sleep when your family can’t afford a bed.

That’s why The Service Collaborative of WNY created Beds for Buffalo, which has provided beds to more than 250 children in the past three years and is on track to provide hundreds more.

Volunteers in the program learn carpentry and woodworking skills, gain a greater understanding of poverty in Western New York, and have an opportunity to make a difference.

“We believe everyone has a place in service here in Western New York,” says Kate Sarata, the organization’s executive director.

The program’s impact is both immediate and impressive. Kids who once slept on the floor, an air mattress or a couch have now spent more than one million hours sleeping in their very own bed, thanks to Beds for Buffalo.

The problem for The Service Collaborative of WNY was that Beds for Buffalo wasn’t sustainable. Grants had funded the operation, but weren’t a reliable long-term funding source. They needed other ways to bring in revenue.

The organization applied and was accepted to the UB Social Impact Fellows program, a unique initiative co-founded by the schools of Social Work and Management. Through the program, UB places blended teams of graduate students in internships with local mission-driven organizations. A team of three UB graduate students from social work, management and arts and sciences, spent the summer of 2019 learning about The Service Collaborative, Beds for Buffalo, and the social issues each is addressing. They then put their unique experiences, knowledge and strengths together to find a solution to the challenge.

Connecting with UB to find a solution

Helping Beds for Buffalo find a more permanent funding solution was the perfect challenge for Cassie Malough, a student in the dual MBA/Master of Social Work (MSW) program who also earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UB. Before returning as a graduate student, Malough worked for a nonprofit organization, helping clients who were facing domestic and sexual violence, but she yearned to do more.

“I wanted to move away from one-on-one client work to solve higher-level issues and change the community,” says Malough. “So many times I had to tell people that I couldn’t help them; it was the system’s fault. I wanted to look at the big picture. That’s what drove me to look into business as well as social work.”

Malough joined fellow graduate students Jake Friedman, an MSW student, and Rachit Anand, a PhD student in Comparative Literature from the College of Arts and Sciences. Together, they evaluated the Beds for Buffalo program, interviewed stakeholders and researched funding models for similar initiatives nationwide.

The program operates out of the Foundry, a community workshop and business incubator on Buffalo’s East Side, where Beds for Buffalo volunteers work together milling, sanding, painting and assembling the wooden pieces. The students quickly learned that painting the beds is typically the bottleneck in the process, due to the short window each year when the climate cooperates (paint dries more slowly in the cold), and the lack of storage space.

Their solution was to hold an annual Paint-A-Thon, a week-long event to attract community volunteers to paint the beds, while also providing a fundraising opportunity to help sustain the program. The Service Collaborative of WNY plans to hold their first Paint-A-Thon in early spring 2020.

“They defined what our needs truly are and how we can address those needs through a practical plan,” says Adam Bartoszek, who oversees the Beds for Buffalo program at The Service Collaborative. “It would have taken me probably a year or a year and a half to complete what they did in a few weeks,” he says.

The students’ efforts earned them second place in Pitch for a Cause—the culmination of the Social Impact Fellows program. There, each team of Fellows gets five minutes to tell a panel of judges about their work and its impact on the community. The Beds for Buffalo team won $1,000 for The Service Collaborative, allowing them to secure a 20-foot shipping container to double their storage space for lumber and equipment.

A unique initiative

The Social Impact Fellows program is a partnership between the UB School of Social Work and School of Management, and operates in collaboration with UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars, a campus-based entrepreneurship center. In 2019, the program also invited College of Arts and Sciences graduate students to apply.

Through the program, master’s students in social work bring a trauma-informed and human rights perspective to each Social Impact Fellows team. MBA students employ their business and leadership skills, while students from the College of Arts and Sciences offer research-based support.

During the 10-week summer program, the students spend 8 weeks on-site with the organization, and the rest of the time in coursework or team meetings learning how to identify and define social challenges, generate sustainable solutions, and practice entrepreneurial principles.

“Being able to come in and provide us with this external lens is really helpful,” says Sarata. Her colleague Bartoszek agreed. “I’ve been working with UB now for several years, and they’ve been fantastic. We always welcome the students.”

Lessons for everyone

While the Beds for Buffalo program helps the kids who are getting the beds, it’s also designed to serve the people who are building them—including community volunteers as well as students from WNY YouthBuild, a program that helps at-risk and low-income youth.

At Beds for Buffalo, the YouthBuild students, “gain confidence and a sense of self-worth that comes from teaching something to adults who would otherwise be in a position of power,” says Anand.

The trauma-informed approach from the School of Social Work helped the UB students serve the YouthBuild participants, many of whom are high school dropouts or are from families that have experienced trauma.

For UB’s Friedman, having the experience and background from the MSW program helped him understand the YouthBuild group and “really feel competent in the suggestions I was making.”

Among other benefits, the volunteers gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening in Buffalo. “You can read about poverty and about the growth of our community, but how do you actually understand that if you’re not working toward alleviating some of that yourself?” asks Sarata.

Of course, the students also learned valuable lessons, including how to work together across disciplines.

“In the beginning everyone is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” says Friedman. “Then you get into the nitty gritty and realize there are differences.”

Anand discovered that the theoretical concepts he typically worked as a comparative literature PhD student didn’t always translate to real life. These are the types of invaluable insights and breakthroughs that students gain from experiential learning initiatives like the Social Impact Fellows program.

Looking forward

The Beds for Buffalo student team hopes their growth plan will help bring in more volunteers and enable Beds for Buffalo to provide beds to 400 families a year or more.

That’s exactly the type of impact that students like Malough hope to achieve.

“I come from a privileged background where I never had to worry about having a bed to sleep on,” she says. “Can you imagine not knowing where you’re going to sleep? How would that lack of stability impact the rest of your life?”

Thanks in part to the Social Impact Fellows, that’s a question that hundreds of kids in Buffalo won’t have to worry about.