Alumni and community news and notes

John Bricout (Ph.D.'98/SW)

Headshot of John Bricout
John Bricout (Ph.D.'98/SW)

VCU School of Social Work alum John C. Bricout was named the 2022 recipient of the school’s Making a Difference Alumni Award, which recognizes and honors doctoral alumni who have distinguished themselves as innovators in research and scholarship, education, advocacy, and policy development or human services.

Dr. Bricout is a professor and director of research at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work and also serves as co-director of its interdisciplinary Workforce Development and Research Lab.

“It was completely out of the blue,” he says of the honor. “And I thought about things I am particularly grateful for from my VCU education.”

He cited the importance of teamwork, modeled by his doctoral advisor, Kia J. Bentley, Ph.D., LCSW, and also by Paul Wehman, Ph.D., director of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC), where Bricout worked as a student. The two mentors also emphasized value-driven purpose and the necessity of reinvention to adapt as times change. 

Working outside the box is more interesting and potentially more powerful,” Dr. Bricout says. “It’s not simply a question of thinking about things differently, but acting differently on those different thoughts. At the core of interdisciplinary work, it’s supposed to be about the idea that you develop new frameworks that represent a kind of blending of various disciplines.”

His nomination letter captures the layers of experiences and expertise that Dr. Bricout has built over his career: “John’s line of research has established him as a forward-thinking innovator, whose work has remained on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and community living for people with disabilities. ... His (work has) exemplified all that the VCU School of Social Work’s Ph.D. Program hopes our graduates will contribute to our shared professional world.”

James Forte (M.S.W.’78/SW; Ph.D.’90/SW)

Headshot of James Forte
James Forte (Ph.D.'90/SW; M.S.W.'78/SW)

VCU School of Social Work alum James Forte, whose “contributions in teaching, scholarship and the social work profession are exemplary,” received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers’ Maryland chapter.  

Dr. Forte is a professor of social work at Salisbury University, and he has published more than 40 scholarly articles and four books. He has also given around 100 presentations at local, regional, national and international conferences.

“The depth and breadth of Jim Forte’s contributions to the social work profession and community are truly outstanding,” NASW-MD wrote in announcing the award.

Since 1976, Dr. Forte has been working with vulnerable populations, including those experiencing chronic mental illness, homelessness and incarceration, and those living with disabilities. He was selected in 2016 as the best reviewer for the Journal of Social Work Education by the Council on Social Work Education, and was honored in 2010 as Maryland Social Work Educator of the Year.

Melissa Mason (B.S.W.’15/SW; B.S.’15/H&S)

Melissa Mason poses outside a building.
Melissa Mason (B.S.W.'15/SW; B.S.'15/H&S)

VCU School of Social Work alum Melissa Mason is putting her degrees to work in a nontraditional way, partnering with childhood friend Lillian Jackson to create a digital platform to help women of color connect and build relationships over brunch.

Brown Skin Brunchin’ was born of necessity when Jackson moved to Las Vegas and the two childhood friends realized they needed ways to broaden their social circles. Today, their concept connects 25,000 women in 71 cities.

“It’s geared toward women of color,” Mason says. “My education and background helped me with getting people to feel comfortable. We’ve had complete strangers that are now lifelong friends.”

The traditional networking events Mason and Jackson initially tried weren’t quite as fun and easygoing as they’d hoped. “We ended up having a conversation about friendships as adults, how difficult it is to make friends as an adult,” Mason says.

They took to social media to share their dilemma, and interest in their initial brunch bookings soared. "We realized we were on to something, "Mason says. “People were just coming out of everywhere, like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How are you doing this?’ ‘We need that in our city.’ ‘How can we bring that here?’ We quickly learned that we were not the only people feeling that way.”

Mason says she applied lessons learned as a VCU double major (social work and psychology) to Brown Skin Brunchin', the key among them being "meeting people where they are. People can come and be free. They’re themselves. They can speak with someone who may understand what they’re going through as a person of color.”

Mason and Jackson's tips on how to make connections in a new place include: shaking off nervousness, finding networks via social media, a willingness to try something new or different, nurturing college relationships, and not being afraid to keep trying.

Office of Field Education award winners

Headshot of Helen Rai
Helen Rai (B.S.W.'16/SW; M.S.W.'17/SW)

Two VCU School of Social Work alumni were among those recognized through the Office of Field Education's annual awards.

Helen Rai (B.S.W.’16/SW; M.S.W.’17/SW) received the Amy Rosenblum Award in 2022 for her work at ReEstablish Richmond and Circles RVA. From her nomination letter: Helen created a space for learning that was inviting, free of judgment and supportive. Teaching lessons outside of the social work classroom that translate into the real world: self advocacy, boundary setting, empowerment and so much more. She is very deserving for creating a space worth processing.

Here for the Girls, which provides support for young women affected by breast cancer, received the Outstanding Community Partner award. VCU School of Social Work alum Melissa Weaver (B.S.W.'99/SW; M.S.W.'06/SW), the organization's member services manager, accepted the award.

Group shot of Here for the Girls team members
Melissa Weaver (B.S.W.'99/SW; M.S.W.'06/SW), far left, and the Here for the Girls team

Other honorees:

  • Kay Carbaugh, Harrisonburg City Public Schools: Outstanding Field Instructor Award
  • Christina Cappelletti, The DC Center for the LGBT Community, Outstanding New Field Instructor
  • Jessica Smith, Radiance Counseling, Outstanding Task Supervisor Award
  • Hector Cendejas, Liaison of the Year Award

Circle of Care Awards

Two VCU School of Social Work alumni were selected as winners of the Social Work Circle of Care Awards 2021. The awards are sponsored by Care Advantage and benefit the VCU Massey Cancer Center.

The winners were:

  • Elizabeth Walsh (M.S.W.’92/SW), Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center: Social Worker of the Year in a Hospital
  • Dana King Rivera (B.S.W.’02/SW; M.S.W.’06/SW), Sitter & Barfoot Veterans Care Center: Social Worker of the Year Legacy Award

Fourteen social work alumni were also recognized as finalists across various work settings:

  • Carrie Bennett (B.S.W.’80/SW), Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services
  • Whitney Burton Meleski (B.S.’11/H&S; M.S.W’13/SW), VCU Massey Cancer
  • Chelsea Cassidy (B.S.W.’09/SW; M.S.W.’10/SW), AT Home Care Hospice
  • Lemmie M. Downs Jr. (M.S.W’07/SW), Bon Secours Maryview
  • Alexandra Little (B.S.W.’17/SW; M.S.W.’19/SW), Memorial Regional Medical Center
  • Ashley Love (M.S.W.’97/SW), Bon Secours Mercy Health
  • Colleen Manion (M.S.W.’94/SW), Virginia Cancer Institute
  • Lisa Mooney (M.S.W.’12/SW), Hospice Community Care
  • Lisa O’Shea (M.S.W.’03/SW), CareMore
  • Donshea Smith (B.S.W.’00/SW), Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital
  • Shannon Stewart (M.S.W.’12/SW), HCA Chippenham Hospital
  • Megan Stucke (M.S.W.’11/SW), VCU Health System
  • Sascha Wallace (M.S.W.’98/SW), Interim Healthcare
  • Shelby Ward (M.S.W.’11/SW), Bon Secours Mercy St. Francis Medical Center

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