Mobile Thriving Respite Connects Theory to Practice for Psychology Students Tuesday, November 9, 2021
"The Mobile Thriving Respite adds immense value to the education I am receiving at Point Park. My involvement allows me to see what I am learning and problematizing in classes represented in real-world scenarios. This extends my education far beyond the classroom and aids in preparing me for the professional world."
Psychology major Hallie Abbott '23 grew up in Pittsburgh, aware of its street community and residents experiencing homelessness.
"You often hear about different organizations that provide them with food, clothes and shelter," she said. "These organizations are doing amazing work that is beneficial, but it does not provide a thriving aspect."
Building the bridge from surviving to thriving is the mission of the Mobile Thriving Respite, a community-based action initiative launched in 2019 by Robert McInerney, Ph.D., professor and undergraduate coordinator of the psychology program, and Point Park psychology students. It seeks to help members of the street community thrive instead of merely survive by hosting free events and providing cultural, educational and psychological resources. These events are as simple as sharing stories over coffee and pepperoni rolls, playing board games and cards and listening to music, but the results are significant.
"The most important thing I have learned thus far is that the interactions we have with the street community are no different than those we would have with a friend," Abbott said. "It really is just about listening to someone and playing a game of cards. We aren’t there to tell them how to live their lives, and we are not necessarily trying to fix their situations. We are there to offer a welcoming environment where they don’t have to worry about everything else that is going on in their lives for a moment."
In the classroom
The respite is integrated into each level of degree program in the Department of Psychology, allowing students to connect theory to practice in meaningful ways, especially students with a community psychology concentration.
Vanesa E. Hart '23
The respite is indicative of the Department of Psychology's emphasis on humanistic, existential and critical perspectives of psychology, which are important for gaining insight into the lived experiences of others, according to Samuel Merhaut, a student in the Critical Psychology Ph.D. program.
"It’s a radical departure from mainstream psychology, and I see it as a necessary one to better understand social, cultural and political forces in the discipline of psychology and the world that directly impact the well-being of people and their communities," he said. "I think having professors who think about and teach psychology in this way is crucial to perpetuating important changes in the field."
Merhaut said participating in the respite has served as a great opportunity to take all the theory learned from texts and lectures and use it out in the world.
"While so much important learning takes place in the classroom, it’s important to learn how to bracket out the academic language and attitude to meaningfully participate in community in this way," he said. "Learning how to translate the educational experience into praxis has been awesome."
Clinical psychology student Vanesa E. Hart '23 is currently taking McInerney's Zombies and the Psychological Life course. Being in the class while also helping with the respite has given her a new perspective.
"I see how we as a society tend to cast out and or look down on those who have less than we do," she said. "My mentality has changed. I have been moved. Participating in this practicum with others has enhanced my awareness in the classroom as it relates to psychology."
McInerney said he is able to offer real-world examples of various concepts in the classroom by referencing experiences from the respite, while students working with the respite gain hands-on experience.
Rachel Stough '24
"It’s an excellent outreach and activist project that goes on their CV’s," McInerney said. "That’s part of what we want. We want our students to get jobs and careers, and they now have experience working with people at the level of community, not necessarily clinical, but the level of community. That means if they’re applying to a nonprofit organization doing community outreach, they’re going to be very attractive to that organization because of that hands-on experience."
The respite's origins are grounded in scholarship. McInerney's students gathered data about the street community's lived experiences over several years during internships with Pittsburgh Mercy's Operation Safety Net® and Bridge to the Mountains. Their findings pointed to a need for thriving beyond surviving homelessness, and thus, the respite was born. McInerney, along with Psy.D. student Rachel Stough '24 and alumna Kelsey Long, recently published an academic article, "The Mobile Thriving Respite With and For the Street Community," in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, detailing the data and the respite's goals.
"Publishing research at the doctoral level is expected; However, it is important to me to publish research that challenges dominant narratives about marginalized groups of people and their experiences that serve to oppress them," Stough said. "I am very aware that my positioning within the academic community affords me some level of privilege and power that many other members of marginalized groups do not have. With this in mind, I hope to always use that privilege to empower and honor the experiences of marginalized others."
In the community
While the pandemic hindered the respite's ability to gather in person for a while, the group is conducting outdoor events throughout the community, with help from Bridge Outreach, Margaret Connor, president of the Mexican War Streets Society and Frank Battista, managing barista at Commonplace Coffee. Additionally, the respite just received a $1,000 grant from Awesome Pittsburgh to support its programs.
As the director of the respite, Arin Shatto '22, a student in the M.A. in Community Psychology program, is responsible for coordinating logistics for events, such as meeting with local community leaders who work closely with the street community, distributing flyers to local organizations and collaborating with fellow students to prepare meaningful and welcoming events.
"The Mobile Thriving Respite adds immense value to the education I am receiving at Point Park," she said. "My involvement allows me to see what I am learning and problematizing in classes represented in real-world scenarios. This extends my education far beyond the classroom and aids in preparing me for the professional world. It also gives me the opportunity to discover things I deeply enjoy. Lastly, working with the Mobile Thriving Respite permits me to foster meaningful, authentic relationships with my colleagues in the psychology department and folks in the street community, which I hope will continue to flourish."