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Nine years ago, Audrey Johnson didn’t know what a social worker was or did. This May, she’ll earn a master’s degree in social work from MSU Denver. Photo: Alyson McClaran

Keeping kids safe

A tuition stipend and online degree are helping this alumna make a big difference in her small town.

April 27, 2018

By Doug McPherson

Nine years ago, Audrey Johnson didn’t know what a social worker was or did. This May, she’ll earn a master’s degree in social work from MSU Denver.

It’s been a busy nine years of learning, working and persevering – but more importantly, nine years of growth that have transformed her into a professional helper, serving her fellow citizens in Kiowa County in rural southeastern Colorado. Population: 1,423.

It all started in 2009 when she was 22 years old with two small kids, one she had at age 17, the second at 19. She needed a job and heard that the Kiowa County Department of Social Services had one. “I didn’t know what they did, but there was a job, so I applied,” Johnson says.

And she landed the job at the front desk, checking people in and answering the phone. As humdrum as that may sound, it was enough to hook Johnson – hook her into the lives of those needing help, especially the children. As a young mother, any child in need tugged at her heart.

When alumna Audrey Johnson saw that children weren't getting the help they needed, she decided to do something about it. She went back to school for her degree in social work. Photo: Alyson McClaran

But it didn’t take her long to discover a problem: frequent turnover in child services. Within four years she saw five child caseworkers come and go. “I think the biggest problem was they didn’t have the right background for the job. One had a criminal justice background, another was in education, so they just didn’t have the social work education or experience.”

That meant children who needed help weren’t getting it. It weighed on Johnson, and she pitched in where she could – eventually becoming a case aide, supervising parental visits and helping with transportation, but she knew that to help the way she wanted to, she’d have to go to school.

She began taking classes at Lamar Community College in nearby Lamar, where she studied for two years. Then the state gave her a stipend to earn her four-year degree in social work. She applied to MSU Denver’s online program, was accepted, and earned her bachelor’s degree last May.

But she wouldn’t stop there. She says she learned so much in the baccalaureate program – skills she could instantly use in her job – that she opted to go for her master’s. She began MSU Denver’s online MSW program in August.

She loves it.

“Yes, it takes time,” she says, estimating she puts in 20 to 30 hours a week. “But like with my bachelor’s degree, I’m learning new skills I can use in my job.”

Johnson earned a competitive scholarship that paid for her degree through the Colorado Department of Human Services Child Welfare Stipend program for students who agree to serve in public child welfare. And she is exactly the type of “shining star” MSU Denver and the state committee like to choose for this honor – “someone who has a heart and who wants to serve her community,” says Kate Trujillo, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work. That’s what Johnson is doing today in Kiowa County.

A tuition stipend and online degree are helping Audrey Johnson make a big difference in her small town. Photo: Alyson McClaran

“I’m a generalist, so I do everything from intake to ongoing casework to adoptions. A case never leaves my hands – I’m there from start to finish. I know change can happen because I see it happen. I’m a firm believer that anyone can change.”

One of her long-term goals is to work on the clinical side in mental health, she says. “We don’t have a lot of those kinds of resources here, so I think that will help people.”

So the pesky turnover problem is solved. Johnson is sticking with it. Why? “I feel a huge sense of obligation. I feel personally invested in the community. I’ve added new services and built relationships that weren’t there before,” she says.

Those relationships are evident almost daily in her small community. When she goes to pick up her kids at school, she sees plenty of children she’s helped over the last nine years.

“They come up to me and give me a high-five.It feels pretty good.”

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