Avodah alumna Corinne Vandagriff (New Orleans Service Corps, 2016-2017) hopes to change the way children and adolescents experience stressful situations. For her, the work is deeply personal. At 19, she met a child life specialist for the first time, due to her own experiences with a chronic health issue. She was introduced to the Child Life field, which she’s now studying at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York. She will graduate this spring and take the certification exam to become a child life specialist.
Corinne came to Avodah with a background in sexual health, and was able to get on-the-job experience in the field through her Service Corps placement. She served as a Life Skills Coordinator for CrescentCare, a health and wellness center originally founded in response to the HIV epidemic in New Orleans. She facilitated skill-building programs, as well as provided testing and counseling, for individuals living with HIV. The position gave her concrete skills for working in HIV and healthcare and further developed her ability to connect with clients.
As her service year came to an end, she connected with an Avodah Advisory Council member, Julie Finger, for career advice. Advisory Council members are volunteer community leaders who assist in furthering Avodah’s mission within our local program cities. “That’s one of the great things about the Advisory Councils at Avodah — they are so invested in the Corps Members,” Corinne said.
Through this connection, she found a job working with adolescents on health promotion and sexual health in the research division of the Tulane Medical School. She built relationships with and supported participants to keep them engaged in the process. She worked most closely on a study looking to determine if an injectable form of HIV-prevention medication would be as effective as the daily pill already on the market. She helped identify people eligible for the study, kept them invested in the trial, and conducted harm reduction and sexual health counseling each time they came in.
“That trial has since concluded and it was found that the injectable form is actually more effective than the daily pill. It’s really exciting to have been part of a study that will have such an impact on sexual health. Research rarely works out that way,” Corinne said.
Her Avodah placement and position at Tulane helped her realize she was most energized by providing emotional support for patients and helping them better understand what was happening, but she wanted more tools to do that work long-term. She made the decision to leave Tulane and pursue a masters in Child Life, the field that she was introduced to as an adolescent.
Child life specialists support children and families as they navigate stressful and/or traumatic environments, particularly those that were not built to consider a child’s developmental needs. A relatively young field, it is currently primarily present in children’s hospitals. Specialists provide psycho-social care, doing what they can to make experiences less overwhelming and mitigate trauma.
“As an example, MRI scans can be scary. For kids, they’re still building the part of their brain that can even process what the experience is. They might not know how to ask the questions they need to ask to feel safe or advocate for themselves,” Corinne said. “The child life specialist would likely go in and show them a model of an MRI or play the MRI sounds. They might talk about it as though they’re going to be in this big spaceship — provide them with any sort of information to make the experience less scary. If the child goes through an experience like an MRI that is traumatic, it is the job of the child life specialist to help them process that.”
In addition to medical education, advocacy is a huge part of the role. Specialists advocate for the needs of the family, which could include thinking about things like race, ethnicity, religion, family structure, or sexual orientation. It could also mean considering questions such as ‘What is the family’s communication style?’ or ‘What can we provide to help everyone feel safer and more comfortable?’
While family-centered care is a core value of Child Life, as set by the Association of Child Life Professionals, the field’s lack of diversity does not reflect the diversity of the families served. A 2018 survey of 108 child life specialists noted that specialists of color were less likely to have heard about the field through personal connections and felt less supported throughout their certification process. As the study summarizes, “the homogeneity of the field relates directly to the services child life specialists aim to provide.”
“It is a very white, cis woman, Christian field, which we know has an impact on the care families receive,” Corinne agreed. “Because I am Jewish and queer, I am still somewhat unique in the context of Child Life. I am committed to an anti-racist, culturally responsive practice and the education I received through Avodah has allowed me to continue building that.”
While it’s been over four years since Corinne graduated from the Service Corps, the Avodah network has continued to support her, be it through conversations with other alumni in healthcare or finding temporary housing when she’s had to leave New Orleans for practicums.
“I am still very close with many of my fellow Corps Members… My community from Avodah is still a huge part of my support system.”