Master of Social Work


Everyone knows that wry saying about becoming a parent: You have to pass a test to get a driver’s license, but not to become a biological mother or father.

While that is still true, some Saint Leo students have had the option of getting some excellent grounding in the topic (with tests) through an undergraduate course called the Psychology of Parenting. It is a junior-level course, developed by Dr. Tammy L. Zacchilli, associate professor of psychology, after discussion among several peers in the discipline from various Saint Leo teaching locations. She has taught it four times so far, every other fall, at University Campus. The class typically fills up, or nearly does.

Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, a mother of three herself, has hopes of extending the course to more Saint Leo students by developing an online version in the near future.
Psychology faculty knew the course would help students who want to become parents at some point in life. Another group that stands to benefit are those who intend to go into teaching, social work, or another kind of helping profession, she points out. “Their jobs may require them to work with parents.”

For some reason, Zacchilli found there were only a few sound textbooks available on the topic—though she notes with caution for other readers that anyone can write a book on parenting without broad knowledge of the theories on how children develop psychologically. Still, she hunted until she found one and supplements the reading with videos, interactive assignments, speakers from child-related occupations, class discussions, and a required service project.

The class lends itself to being divided into three segments, she said. In the first part, the class reads and discusses what psychologists have written about parenting and discipline styles. Students are generally eager to talk about this and compare experiences. Even though most at University Campus have not yet had children, they think back to their own families and have positive exchanges about how different cultures and backgrounds play a role, she said.

“We have students from a lot of different places,” she reflects. Students from the Caribbean, for instance, may have experiences that contrast with those of students from the mainland United States.

The second portion of the course is devoted to understanding child development, and the third to special situations that include adoption, high-risk families, and same-sex parenting.

Emma Hutterli ’16 particularly recalls an assignment with a delicate prop. Students were given actual chicken eggs (with the inside liquid blown out) to carry for a week as stand-ins for infants, meaning they were not to leave the eggs unattended. It was “light-hearted, but the class took it seriously,” recalled Hutterli, who is now studying for the Master of Social Work degree from Saint Leo.

“We then talked about that experience: for example, how was it to ask for a babysitter, what was it like taking the eggs to class/home/the store, did any of the eggs break over the time period?” She still has her phone photo of her decorated egg.

Inmates Train Companions for Military Veterans

“Working with these dogs makes me feel like I have a purpose. I find joy in helping others, instead of just being focused on myself.”

These are the words of a Lowell Correctional Institution inmate, a woman who has been part of the WOOF dog-training program for two years.

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Julie Drexel

The Women Offering Obedience and Friendship (WOOF) program was created in 2011 as a partnership with the Florida Department of Corrections. It is managed by Julie Drexel, a Saint Leo student who is earning her Master of Social Work degree online. She works with a number of female inmates at the Ocala correctional facility to train service dogs for military veterans, via her Patriot Service Dogs program. Prior to training service dogs, the women become familiar with canines first by walking them and then by training Marion County Humane Society dogs to make them more adoptable.

Only women who have shown the ability to be trustworthy and reliable are accepted into the WOOF program. Living with the dogs in their special dorm—with three to five inmates and dogs per room—is a privilege. The dorm is shared by inmates who work in the nearby equine program, as well as prison orderlies.

Every day, Monday through Friday, the women train the dogs for several hours, both in the dorm and in the work yard. Some of the women teach basic obedience to the Humane Society dogs, with a new class of dogs starting every eight weeks. The program boasts a 100 percent success rate in finding forever homes for the graduates.

The other women work with dogs, starting as puppies, to train them in serving military veterans who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical challenges. Over a two-year period, they teach more than 80 commands and are completely responsible for the care of the dogs. They teach the canines to turn lights on and off, fetch and carry items, open and close cabinets and drawers, help with guidance and balance, and offer companionship for those with PTSD. On weekends, local residents assist by helping to socialize the dogs, by taking them to stores, restaurants, and other public places.

“This program has helped me build my confidence and learn patience,” one inmate said. “It’s hard work, but I see positive results, and I like helping men and women who have served.”

Since the Patriot Service Dogs program is a nonprofit, made possible completely by volunteers, the service dogs are offered to veterans free of charge.

Another benefit of the program is the effects it has on the inmates. Drexel encourages the women to learn not only about dog training, but about the world. She has implemented an education plan, through which the women read books and do book reports, watch educational videos, and take tests. The program also offers a wellness class and college courses.

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“The program is not a success if it’s only about the dogs,” explained Drexel, a former teacher with a bachelor’s degree in education. “If the inmates leave and come back, we have failed. I want to teach them real-life skills and instill confidence, as well as woman power.”

“Miss Julie has made me feel I can do anything,” another inmate said. “I’m working on my GED.”

Working with the dogs not only gives the inmates a sense of accomplishment, but also provides stories they can tell their families when they visit. Sometimes their dogs are part of the family visits, too, which puts everyone more at ease.

“My daughter is proud of me,” one young mom said. “She sees I am doing something important.”

Drexel was inspired to learn about dog training after a young neighbor had suffered a stroke and needed a service dog, but there was a two-year wait. She started by volunteering as a puppy raiser and eventually co-founded Patriot Service Dogs with Susan Bolton in 2009. “Dogs can fix all kinds of problems,” she said.

She decided to pursue her Master of Social Work degree at Saint Leo because she believes the coursework will better prepare her for community outreach efforts, as well as her relationships with the inmates and other volunteers.

“I learn so much from these women every day,” Drexel said. “Knowing them has made me more grateful, more appreciative. I’m a better person for doing this program.”

When the women of the WOOF program talk about their dogs, they exude excitement and pride. They talk about being responsible and accountable, working hard and being organized. One mom talked about how much she misses her daughter and how prison was making her hardened. Working with the dogs “helps me know what it’s like to have feelings again.”

Another inmate who has been incarcerated for more than 15 years has big plans for when she is released. She has dreams of working as a dog trainer or a veterinarian’s assistant. “The best thing about me is working with these dogs,” she said. “My life will never be the same.”

Note: Names of the inmates have been withheld to respect confidentiality.