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Ally Crooks - United Self-Help - Oahu, Hawaii

In 2010 I went to Oahu, Hawaii for my DukeEngage Independent Project.  Working with my community partner, United Self-Help, I wanted to establish an outreach program for the teenage population.  United Self-Help is a non-profit organization that aims to help mental health consumers help themselves.  Working with them was an honor and an incredible learning experience.  During my time there my eyes were opened to the world of abject poverty, mental health issues, and economic problems facing Hawaiians.


I chose to volunteer in the mental health field because I majored in psychology and was very interested in burdens that mental health consumers bear and the resources available to help them.  I also love working with youth and really feel that giving back through non-profits and volunteering is one of the most important things you can do for a community.


While I was hoping to create an outreach program for youth, I faced many obstacles right off the bat. I think I went into the experience with a naïve view of what I could accomplish in respect to the development of a brand new branch of United Self-Help.  My main hurdle was time. Not only did I have two shorts months to work, but also in the non-profit sector everything takes longer and there are hundreds of hoops to jump through in order to secure the funds needed to carry out your ideas.  When I first arrived I was able to work on and submit a grant for a teenage outreach program, but then the waiting game set in.  I didn’t realize what a long process it would be.  Something that’s really important when creating an independent project proposal is to be EXTREMELY flexible and not to get deterred or disillusioned if your project throws you a few curveballs.  I ended up facilitating support groups, setting up brand new educational classes for consumers, becoming a certified peer specialist, and traveling around the island with the director of United Self-Help promoting their services and raising awareness in high schools.


One of the things I’m most proud of is the sustainability of the new classes and support groups we set up.  United Self-Help planned to continue all of them long after my two months were up.  Sustainability is another important aspect to consider when creating an independent project.  I also recommend really getting to know the people you will be working with.  I still keep in touch with my community partner and recently found out that they are actually planning on expanding their services further, onto the Big Island. How exciting!


My Independent Project experience was priceless and I will always be grateful for the opportunity DukeEngage gave me.  I went in with high hopes of helping a community in need and walked away feeling like they gave me more than I ever could give them.  The mental health consumers I met inspired me deeply and I hope to continue to work with them in the future.


Ally Crooks graduated in 2012 with a B.S. in Psychology and a minor in Religion. She continues to keep in touch with the founder of United Self-Help and hopes to revisit the non-profit in Hawaii to volunteer again in the future. Ally will be attending optometry school starting in the fall of 2013.


United Self-Help is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote mental health through education and mutual support.