Giving a voice to the voiceless
by Zac Kennedy
Jul 14, 2010 | 2047 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Spence Dabbs, a 2007 Walker High graduate, just completed an eight-week internship at the VOICES organization. Photo Special to the Eagle
Spence Dabbs, a 2007 Walker High graduate, just completed an eight-week internship at the VOICES organization. Photo Special to the Eagle
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Spence Dabbs went into this summer thinking that he lucked up to get an internship that would fit his schedule. Little did he know, he would see his vast skill set be put to the test to provide every Alabama child with something they have never had: A voice.

Dabbs, a 2007 Walker High School graduate and current student a Birmingham-Southern College, just completed an 8-week full-time internship at the non-profit organization VOICES for Alabama’s Children in Montgomery.

Established in 1992 through the vision of leading child activists, VOICES for Alabama’s Children was the first, and remains the only organization to document the conditions of children in each of the state’s 67 counties.

“The internship with VOICES was amazing,” Dabbs said. “At first, I was just looking for something to do for the summer, because I have to take the LSAT soon. What I found was a true work experience and I had the opportunity to learn a lot about myself.”

To find a worthwhile internship to busy himself for the summer, Dabbs sat down with his BSC advisor. He was then referred to a school program that would give him a deeper experience than simply a summer internship.

“People were telling me to look into the Hess Program at the College. Not to make a career move, but just to do something to contribute,” he said.

According to the program’s website, the Hess Fellows program “seeks to move students beyond their typical volunteer experience to help students better understand how public policy affects people’s lives.”

The three part program includes pre-internship seminars focused on advocacy and practical training, an 8-week internship and a post-internship retreat. Following the summer internship, students engage the campus community in advocacy projects.

Director of Leadership Studies for the Hess Center, Jeanne Jackson, said that the program, currently in its fifth summer, has become a very competitive program for Birmingham-Southern students.

“We have lots of kids sign up for the program, but only 13 or 14 are usually chosen,” Jackson said. “We saw that when lots of students were volunteering for non-profits, the problems they were trying to solve just kept reoccurring. We, at the Hess Center, made a point to provide more advocacy internships to do away with “Band-Aid” approaches.

Dabbs, as an Economics major, proved that his skills in mathematics and problem solving could immediately be used to make a change in the VOICES organization.

The hess program matched him with VOICES because the organization was in need of someone with strong skills in quantitative analysis to produce a simplified version of its Alabama Kids Count Data Book.

“The Kids Count Data Book is produced annually to provide each Alabama county with information on 16 indicators such as low birth rate, kids who failed the first grade, things like that,” Dabbs said. “Each county is ranked. This is a great way to encourage the counties of Alabama to put their children in higher priority.”

Melanie Bridgeforth, Policy Analyst/ Kids Count Director of VOICES, said, “We had the numbers and information for the Data Book, but it was difficult for people to interpret. Spence took the information, discovered a formula for the book and made it understandable for all parties.”

Dabbs, after creating the formula that would become the common method for the Data Book’s future production, took the process a step further by presenting it to a group of Alabama citizens.

Jackson explained, “He simplified it greatly. He figured out a formula for the data and he worked with a statistician at Auburn University at Montgomery to develop a very sophisticated analysis. He produced powerpoint presentations to a group of people in Pickens County to help them get their hand around the sophisticated materials.”

Of course, Dabbs had to work around the clock to prepare this revolutionary project.

“The work was very tedious,” said Dabbs of the sometimes grueling, number-crunching labor. “At points, it was very frustrating because of the huge amount of research. But, when I really began to notice how poorly our county ranks in specific areas concerning our children, I really began to learn a lot about myself and I thought that helping create the book was a way to do my part in helping these children.”

According to the 2009 Data Book, Walker County ranks 21st amongst all other counties in Alabama in child wellness and Alabama ranks 48th on the national scale. These numbers are simply not good enough for Dabbs.

Knowing that Rome was not built in one day, Dabbs created the “What Would It Take” project. The project was aimed at showing each county specific actions it could take to steadily receive a better ranking, which would, in turn, greatly benefit the state’s children.

“My hope is that people will fight and advocate for better life for children in Alabama,” he said. “I hope that my efforts were worthwhile.”

Bridgeforth certainly believes they were.

“The unprecedented work he has done will continue to be used after he is gone. In the face of a stressful task, he did not shy away from the challenge. Our hope was that he could see the bigger picture in the work he was doing. Spence took an issue and he provided a solution.”

For more information on Walker County’s ranking in the Kids Count Data Book, visit www.alavoices.org. For more information on the Hess Program for Leadership and Service at Birmingham-Southern College, visit www.bsc.edu/academics/hess.