Building Healthier Communities for Children and Their Families

OOMPH Alumna Shannon Dickerson

Shannon Dickerson, Class of 2014

Although Shannon Dickerson earned the On-Campus/Online Master of Public Health degree in December 2014, she is adamant about staying involved with the program. And that meant becoming a program ambassador, navigating prospective students through the decision-making process. I met with Shannon over lunch to talk about her experience in the program, on being an ambassador and how she’s moving public health forward.

What drew you to being an ambassador for the program?

I didn’t want the program to end! I was so deeply impacted by the program, at every level—personally and professionally—and wanted to stay connected in any way I could. I was honored to be a part of the program by helping support and usher other people into it. The program is designed for people like me—established professionals who are in the middle of their career and who are deciding what’s next for them. I was driven to advance my skills, but more importantly to find my identity in the field. I think that being part of that decision-making process for a prospective student is really admirable. I love to brag about the program all the time. [Laughs]

You’re able to convey your experiences going through the program to these new students. Tell me about your life in the Online MPH program.

Prospective students are very interested in finding the best ways to navigate a program like this. They want to know how to balance it all. I worked full time while in the program, and while it was the most challenging experience I have ever had it was also the most rewarding. My life was work, school and my schoolmates.

I was lucky: Everything I learned in the classroom was relevant and something I was able to apply in my day-to-day work.

I also had an amazing supervisor who was both supportive of my learning and my educational commitments. She really saw the direct link to what I was learning and how it would benefit the work I was doing at Seneca Family of Agencies. She considered the week on campus as training and encouraged me to implement school projects at work. This enhanced my learning experience immensely and really helped me retain all that we were learning in such a fast-paced program.

You’re an evaluation project manager at Seneca. Tell me about your position and the company.

Over the past 30 years, Seneca has developed, implemented and disseminated successful strategies for equipping families, schools, districts and counties with the resources they need to “help children and families succeed through their most difficult times.” During the last fiscal year, Seneca served more than 7,000 children and families with a full continuum of school and community-based services in 12 California counties and the state of Washington. A hallmark of Seneca programs is cross-system collaboration, aligning the mandates and resources of all child-serving agencies in support of shared goals and objectives. In partnership with education, mental health, child welfare and juvenile probation public agencies, Seneca offers a range of programs including Wraparound services, nonpublic school programs, school- and clinic-based therapy, counseling-enriched classrooms and whole-school partnerships. Across these diverse services, Seneca maintains an explicit treatment approach referred to as Unconditional Care. Refined through decades of practice, the Unconditional Care model includes tools and strategies to assess and address the relational, behavioral and ecological needs of youth impacted by trauma, poverty and other social determinants of health.

I have worked for Seneca for the past nine years. In my current role, I work directly with stakeholders to incorporate evaluation and performance improvement activities into Seneca’s new programs and support existing programs to meet reporting contract requirements. Over the past four years, my role has really changed. I used to work with community-based programs in the Bay Area—develop systems for evaluation, identify outputs and measures, and help programs meet their contracts reporting requirements.

The last two years I’ve been working more upstream with our program development team: supporting program design, developing evaluation plans and implementing program evaluation activities agency-wide.

At the contract development stage, I help create rigorous evaluation plans and designs that are feasible to implement and match what our stakeholders want. And then go a step beyond to carve out measures and indicators that we’re passionate about. Getting that level of information on the evaluation plan into the contract is really important because it allows us to advocate for evaluation budget allocation. We’ve been intentional about driving those efforts so that we can build out funding for the programs and create a shared agreement that evaluation is something people want, has value and is a priority.

What types of programs are you working on?

Seneca has a comprehensive continuum of care that includes a wide array of services for children and families involved with county mental health, probation, child welfare and special education systems of care. I have primarily been working with our community-based programs and more specifically with Wraparound programs.

Wraparound is a service model based on collaborative treatment and team-based decision-making, mostly implemented with child welfare and probation-involved youth who are experiencing out-of-home care or are at risk for it. Seneca utilizes a creative solution-focused approach and delivers direct mental health interventions. Wherever they’re experiencing emotional-behavioral issues, familial stressors or system-access challenges, we’re here to support them.

Your work at Seneca is having a positive impact on the health of children and their families. How are you implementing skills learned in the degree program to move forward?

I can honestly say that I am implementing most, if not all the skills I learned in the program.

There was so much that I was able to take from the classroom and bring right into my job. The Program Planning, Program Evaluation, Survey Research Methods, Epi and Stats classes all gave me the skillset I needed to be an effective program evaluator. There were several projects like the program proposal from Program Planning or the survey we designed in Survey Research Methods that I implemented at Seneca.

For example, the proposal I developed was for a program that we had been trying to do with UCSF. It stemmed from a need that we saw in the child welfare population: foster children who were diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and were experiencing high rates of out-of-home placement and frequent hospitalization. There were a couple of years where there were kids in the system of care who were in and out of the hospital with diabetic ketoacidosis. Not only were they not controlling their diabetes and monitoring their glucose, but they were actively using or not using insulin as an act of self-harm. The county was struggling with this problem and we served several of these youth in our residential facilities. We were trying to figure out a way to help UCSF design an intervention program with highly qualified people to keep these kids out of placement and safely maintaining metabolic control.

So we designed a program like Wraparound that was aimed at behavioral interventions and was targeted at mealtimes. I co-authored the program proposal with a clinical psychologist at UCSF. In that class, it was all my work, but we revised it afterward and submitted it for funding.

How are you moving public health forward?

One of the best things about working for an agency like Seneca is that we are really at the forefront of major public health issues.

With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, we are faced with the opportunity to serve families in different ways that demand collaboration between mental health agencies and more traditional health care agencies.

We’re trying to come up with innovative ways to meet new opportunities that are coming out of the Affordable Care Act.

There are several health care organizations that struggle to implement mental health care in an efficient, safe and effective manner. Seneca is an attractive partner, but there are a lot of logistics that are difficult to figure out; funding is always an issue. Blending county mental health contracts with private insurance partners is a challenge that we are learning to navigate. The good thing is, with ACA the policy is there to help facilitate those kinds of partnerships. We are just trying to figure out the funding part.