Joliet, Ill. – Students in the University of St. Francis (USF) criminal and social justice program recently had a unique opportunity to bridge academic coursework with practical application while making a difference for the families of some of Will County’s incarcerated. The result of the opportunity provided Christmas gifts for area children with a parent currently participating in Will County’s Problem-Solving Courts.

In mid-October, USF assistant criminal and social justice professor Stacy Dewald, Ph.D., and her students partnered with Diana Murillo, social worker for the Will County Problem-Solving Courts, and Julie Sterr-McCabe, Will County Problem-Solving Court coordinator to facilitate the Reading Project, which engaged participants in Will County’s four problem-solving courts (drug court, mental health court, veteran’s count and Adult Redeploy Illinois). Incarcerated participants were able to select a children’s book to read to their child(ren) as USF students videotaped them reading. The USF students burned the recordings to DVDs and then gift-wrapped the DVDs and books, which were given to the participants’ children during the holiday season.

“Because of my prior professional career in the criminal justice field, I recognize the importance of bridging academic courses with practical application,” said Dewald, who formerly served as an investigator in the Will County Public Defender’s Office. “As a teacher, I want to connect the students to their own larger professional world as a way to encourage them to network and engage with those in the criminal justice field. I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to help the court participants of Will County Problem-Solving Courts.”

Dewald added that the experience was one that not only gave back to the community, but that also reflected the Franciscan values of USF.

“This was my first time incorporating a service-learning project and I believe that the project enriched the learning experience, taught civic responsibility and strengthened the community. I enjoyed watching the students grow as they gave back to their community. One of the best parts of the project was that it supported the Franciscan values of respect, compassion, service, and integrity as students humanized people that oftentimes our society views as invisible,” she said.

The project also had a positive impact on Dewald’s students, who were able to see a different side of the criminal justice system.

“I am very pleased that I got the opportunity to participate in the Reading Project. It gave my classmates and me a chance to contribute to the greater good and help those who are less fortunate. This experience allowed me to understand the benefits of problem-solving courts and how they help those reach program goals by living out better and non-criminal lifestyles,” said USF criminal and social justice major Steve Smock.

“This project marks a rare opportunity – an opportunity to re-humanize individuals in the court systems, be it problem-solving courts or otherwise. A reminder that despite the uniform of corrections, these are still people, with families they care about and people they love,” said criminal and social justice major Daniel Simmons.

The University of St. Francis, in Joliet, Ill., serves close to 4,000 students nationwide, offering undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs in the arts and sciences, business, education, nursing and social work. There are over 50,000 USF alumni across the globe. For information, call 800-735-7500 or visit stfrancis.edu.

University of St. Francis: Bigger thinking. Brighter purpose.

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