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Verkamp seeks social justice for the world

Charleston native learning how to be a global citizen with social work abroad

Published: September 21, 2017   
Courtesy Jennifer Verkamp
Jennifer Verkamp, a member of Sacred Heart Church in Charleston, visits Victoria Falls, Zambia, in August. Her travels have taken her to Africa, North America, Central America and South America.

CHARLESTON — The world was Jennifer Verkamp’s classroom in her two-year master’s degree program at Boston College.

Verkamp, who graduated in social work with a global concentration, worked in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Chile and Zambia in her final year of studies.

“We went to Haiti in January to study gender issues, poverty and migration and crossed over to the Dominican Republic to do a comparison study. Although the two countries are located side by side on the same island, the Dominican Republic was much more stable. The differences were like night and day,” she said.

From March to July, Verkamp lived in Santiago, Chile, working at the law clinic of the Pontifical University. She worked on a project to integrate social work into the law clinic, focusing on migration and labor law, and establishing basic case management services.

Chile, a relatively affluent South American country, sees immigrants not only from other South American countries but also from Haiti and Central America.

“People are unused to black people who don’t speak Spanish immigrating to Chile,” Verkamp said. “Chile’s immigration law is based on national security, but the government is working on assimilating migrants now.”

While the law professors worked on getting immigrants work visas and protecting them from deportation, the social workers helped them deal with basic economic and social needs.

 “One Colombian couple traveled for eight days to reach Chile after their farm was seized by revolutionary forces who wanted to grow cocaine,” Verkamp said. “While we tried to solve their overwhelming problems and help them achieve refugee status, I was struck by their desire to start working as soon as they could. Their story was similar to many migrants to the United States who feel forced to leave their homes and then can’t legally find work or provide for their families. It is heartbreaking to see the barriers popping up every time they try to better their lives.”

After graduation in May with a master’s degree in social work, Verkamp traveled to Zambia with a group led by her former global citizenship professor to do an exploratory study on eradicating AIDS there. Her professor, Margaret Lombe, had contributed to the U.N. AIDS book “Getting to Zero.” As a native of Zambia, Lombe knew that the most successful programs are designed with the help and input of the people they will serve. Verkamp’s group went to a Jesuit mission at the Chikune clinic working with HIV/AIDS.

“During our focus group interviews, I was always shocked at how willing the community was to openly share their story about how HIV/AIDS had impacted them,” Verkamp said. “I was also moved by the common theme that the solution to HIV/AIDS would come from within them rather than from foreign agencies.”

As the project manager of the Zambia study, Verkamp is still transcribing interviews and finding common themes to develop a pilot program. “We would love to present what we’ve found,” she said.

Verkamp is taking the same reflective, prayerful, thoughtful decision making process in her job search as she did in choosing her career path.

Growing up in Sacred Heart Parish in Charleston, where her father, Deacon Mark Verkamp, ministers, Verkamp had always been active in parish youth activities. At University of Arkansas Fort Smith, she was Catholic Campus Ministry president. After graduating, she was the youth minister at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers.

“When I started there I had been thinking about social work,” she said, “and I found that working with my students on social justice projects was what I enjoyed most — food pantry every Saturday morning and the Love Tree Christmas giveaway program.”

“My eight trips to Guatemala with the Partners in Benedictine Education program (at St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith) showed me I wanted to do ministry with a global focus. Sacred Heart makes trips to Esquipulas every two years, and my dad, sister, uncle and cousin have accompanied me there several times,” she said.

Verkamp chose Boston College for her master’s program because of its Jesuit mission and values and its offering of a global concentration, but doesn’t necessarily want to work overseas permanently.

“I would like to stay around Arkansas and work with people from different cultures, or maybe with an NGO (non-governmental organization),” she said. “My parents (Deacon John and Tracy Verkamp) have always been extremely supportive about everything I’ve wanted to do. They always let me spread my wings and try it out.”

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