Trauma, Pandemic, and Community Impact

Faith Sandler Words of Faith

The Scholarship Foundation’s Student Advising Team (l to r): Teresa Steinkamp, Félipe Martínez, Dominesha Newton, Amanda Samuels, Robert Sagastume

This request for funding was already prepared for publication before COVID-19 began unfolding in the United States. Once the effects of the virus became clearer, I wondered if it was still appropriate to send. Now that we know how the plight of low-income students was largely disregarded in campus shut-downs and last minute directives to “go home”, the concept of trauma and its secondary effects on caregivers like our staff seems all the more relevant.

The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis is 100 years and counting. Three strategies are key to meeting our mission and supporting student success: awarding, advising, and advocacy. Our five student advisors, and other members of our program and advocacy staff, work daily with students experiencing and surviving trauma. Increasingly, helping students find their way through troubling days in an anxious world is part of our work, and can be overwhelming (especially to staff who bear their own trauma scars). Tears in the office, physical maladies, difficulty focusing, and the occasional explosion of emotion are all symptoms of the stress. For the sake of our program staff and the students who depend on them, we are planning training sessions to help staff understand and cope with trauma and its ripple effects, encourage healthy relationships and boundaries with our students, and find ways to support each other. Please support this effort by contributing to our Trauma Training Fund. We are in urgent need.

When our founder, Mrs. Bettman, met students in her home she was undoubtedly affected by the stories they told of their flight from totalitarian threat in eastern Europe. She and her committee members saw the abject poverty immigrants endured upon arrival. Likely the feelings of fear and hunger were contagious. Today, it is common for our board and staff members to marvel at what they have learned from and with students whose lives may differ or whose experiences trigger our own recall of past fears and challenges.

Our staff works with an estimated 7,000 students and family members annually. While anyone (and probably everyone) directly experiences trauma, research has recently increasingly focused on the effects of trauma on people like our students: those consistently and adversely affected by the terrible societal ills of poverty and racism. We hire staff who can identify with our students, whose life experiences and credentials will best connect with community. Our staff, especially those on the “front line” with students in crisis, are suffering and we need help.

One of my colleagues, reviewing a draft of this blogpost, remarked, “It feels like people don’t know the very real pain we are experiencing by doing the job we signed up to do, and love.” Maybe just a few examples of the ways Scholarship Foundation staff are engaged might help here:

  • Mobilizing to award small grants and provide key resources to students without housing, food, transportation home, or healthcare when locked out of their campuses mid-semester as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads.
  • Receiving calls and text messages on personal and work phones in the middle of the night from a student contemplating ending their life.
  • Accompanying a student to a deportation hearing for a beloved parent.
  • Responding to students who’ve been abandoned by family in reaction to gender identity or sexuality.
  • Supporting those with history of physical or sexual abuse in seeking mental health services.
  • Finding resources for emergency medical needs when a student is uninsured.
  • Assisting students with disabilities in asserting their rights and accessing campus resources.

If our program staff ever stopped to compile their list of examples, it would be even longer… and counting. But I can tell you this vicarious (or secondary) trauma takes a toll on their hearts, minds and bodies.

It’s time to get help. Please CLICK HERE to support our talented and dedicated staff and our remarkable students by contributing to the Trauma Training Fund or to support the Foundation’s ability to make loans and grants to students for emergency or long term needs.  Thank you!

– Faith Sandler