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Field Spotlight: Brian and May, Independent Living Resources

“Find the humanity in every client you serve.”  “Look for evidence of resilience and reflect these qualities back to those you work with.”  These are just two pieces of advice that May Altman, LCSW, associate director of Independent Living Resources, shared with her student intern, Brian Nickerson, MSW ’17, this past year.

Brian worked at Independent Living Resources as a peer counselor for people with disabilities. “Some of the folks I worked with didn't have much experience being seen and heard and deeply considered in an authentic way,” said Brian.


“Bringing this high level of empathy into my sessions seemed to conjure up deep vulnerability, which often accelerated the change process [for my clients].”

The School of Social Work at Portland State University partners with over 200 local agencies like Independent Living Resources to provide Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work students an opportunity to ground their classroom learning in hands-on work with clients and communities.

Brian reflected on one particular client who stood out to him. “In our earliest sessions, I tended to validate their defense mechanisms, which did little to enhance their self-esteem or clarify their thinking. In supervision, I learned about reflective listening, and practiced guiding our sessions away from defense mechanisms and back towards their strengths and goals.”  

May was impressed with the skills Brian developed in his internship. “I loved watching Brian change from his focus of providing information to creating an environment where the clients were comfortable in sharing who they were and be open to addressing barriers and learning new skills.”

Brian also facilitated multiple skill building and process groups and advocated for disability-informed policies at the state and national levels.  He collaborated with a small team to develop and deliver a fully accessible, mindfulness-based stress reduction group for people with disabilities.  This is a unique and innovative curriculum that meets each group member where they are at.  It is adaptable and specialized to each person’s ability. Now, more than 30 people have completed the eight-week group which has become a permanent part of the Independent Living Resources canon.  

May is positive about the many contributions interns make in the organizations in which they serve.  “We gain so much from working with interns. Their questions help us see what we do in a new light,” she said. “In turn we help them learn the values and potential of being a professional social worker.