First Cohort of Students Complete ECMH Fellowship pilot program through the CSU School of Social Work


Once in a while, the best ideas come to life organically. As part of our strategic plan, Early Childhood Council of Larimer County made a more concerted effort to focus on workforce development opportunities tied to higher education. At the same time, Colorado State University’s School of Social Work Field Education program wanted to enhance students’ internship experiences with early childhood mental health (ECMH). 

“One of the reasons why the pilot was so successful is because there were several people and organizations focused on connecting the dots between higher education and early childhood mental health,” said Liz Means, Early Childhood Mental Health Program Manager at Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. 

Fast forward to May 2021, and 6 students (4 undergraduate students and 2 graduate students) recently celebrated completing the Early Childhood Mental Health Fellowship pilot program through the CSU School of Social Work. 

“Our final celebration really drove home how impactful the program has been, particularly for the students, who got emotional during our call,” Means said. 

For Liz Davis, Director of Field Education at CSU’s School of Social Work, who worked closely with Means to make the pilot program a reality, the partnerships that resulted exceeded her expectations. 

“It was more successful than anticipated, personally, because of all the unintended benefits to community partnerships,” Davis said. “I knew it’d be great to collaborate and support students, but to see community partners show up weekly, to see the partners learning, that really brought the impact of the program up another notch.” 

In addition to Early Childhood Council of Larimer County and the CSU School of Social Work, core partnering agencies instrumental to the pilot program were Poudre School District, Thompson School District, Foothills Gateway, The Family Center/La Familia, and private practice therapists.

How It Began

Early Childhood Council of Larimer County has a long history of partnerships in the community, especially around elevating ECMH awareness, resources, and support. Early Childhood Council of Larimer County served as the backbone support agency for the Leap Coalition, a community-wide initiative working to enhance ECMH services in Larimer County. The Leap Coalition became a fully integrated program area of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County in the fall of 2020 and has since been known as the Early Childhood Mental Health Program, under Means’ leadership. 

The CSU School of Social Work ECMH Fellowship Pilot Program gained momentum in June of 2020, right when most people and organizations were feeling disconnected due to the pandemic.  

“One of the other unanticipated benefits of the pilot was that students and community partners really felt more connected, even though we were less connected physically,” Davis said. 

In the fall of 2019, Davis met for coffee with Laura Veradt, an Early Intervention Part C Coordinator at Foothills Gateway, and they started to devise a plan for what would become the initial pieces of the pilot program. Meanwhile, Means had been working on making inroads with higher education opportunities for ECMH. Davis and Means had mutual connections, and eventually the duo teamed up to put their ideas into motion.  

Means spearheaded funding efforts, securing a grant from Larimer County Behavioral Health Services. A collaboration between research and practice, a School of Social Work faculty member and Davis in Field Education collaborated for an additional mini-grant from CSU Extension to support a research-focused intern who was tasked with translating early childhood research into practice and policy. 

After funding was in place, preparation for the pilot program began in earnest last fall with the development of a 16-week curriculum, determination of presenters and facilitators, and outreach and selection of students. Core collaborative agency partners (below) dedicated time and energy for additional planning meetings last fall. Students and core collaborative agency partners were as follows: 

Samantha Bruick – MSW
Placement: Mary Beth Swanson, LCSW, LLC, The Family Center/La Familia
Agency Partner: Mary Beth Swanson, LCSW, LLC

Emily Barfuss – MSW
Placement: Foothills Gateway Inc., Early Intervention Program
Agency Partners: Jenny Woordard, LCSW – Field Instructor; Etta Schwirtz and additional support from the Part C Coordinator Laura Veradt – Site Supervisors

Jackie Andrade Ramirez – BSW
Placement: Thompson School District – Integrated Early Childhood Program
Agency Partner: Susan Bartlett, LCSW – Field Instructor

Maria Villegas Alvarez -BSW
Placement: Poudre School District – Early Childhood Program and The Family Center/La Familia
Agency Partners: Cheryl Refuerzo – Field Instructor; Lia Closson,The Family Center/La Familia – Site Supervisor 

Nina Barkmann – BSW
Placement: Thompson School District – Integrated Early Childhood Program
Agency Partners:  Susan Bartlett, LCSW – Field Instructor

Mylene Laughlin – BSW
Placement: CSU School of Social Work Research with Asst. Professor Samantha Brown
Agency Partner: Mary Beth Swanson, LCSW – Field Instructor 

How It’s Going

Students interviewed with agency partners for the fellowship program in the fall of 2020 and then began their fellowships in January 2021. In addition to their specific fellowship requirements, students and partners came together every Thursday during the program, with an hour of community training followed by an hour of reflective supervision led by ECMH specialists Mary Beth Swanson and Jenny Woodard, both Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). Training included a variety of topics like maternal mental health, prevention based social emotional learning, and trauma informed care. Each weekly training was led by different community agencies including Kelly Bernatow and Nikki Froman from the NICU at Poudre Valley Hospital/UC Health, Corinna Crandall from SummitStone Health Partners, and Liza White from Larimer County Child Protective Services. 

“It was an incredible experience for us all to come together weekly and learn from each other,” Davis said. 

In March, students began the Infant Mental Health Endorsement (IMH-E) process with the Colorado Association for Infant Mental Health (COAIMH) and enrolled in the 8-week Colorado Foundations for Infant Mental Health course. 

“A core component of the pilot was ensuring students received training to serve them beyond their time in the internship program,” Means said. “One of our goals was to develop the students’ hand-ons and training skills so they can specialize in infant and early childhood mental health as social work practitioners.” 

As part of the fellowship, students each received $5,000 stipends and were asked to sign a letter of service agreement stating that they committed to make their best efforts at finding work in the family service field in Larimer County for at least 12 months after graduation. Some students have already secured full-time employment in the community and others have plans to go on to graduate school. [If your organization has an opening that might be a good fit for graduating students focused on ECMH, please contact Liz Davis at [email protected].]

“The learning opportunities for students were huge, as were the connections they developed with partners, their commitment to the Larimer County community, and their new passion for early childhood,” Davis said. 

The internship pilot program officially concluded in mid-May. During the final celebration, everyone participated in a meditation and reflection exercise. 

“What came to surface for me during the exercise were the partnerships and connections that were enhanced through this pilot,” Davis said. “Through our partnerships, there’s continued hope for connections, which directly support and impact access to critical resources for children and families.”  

Both Means and Davis fully anticipate the program continuing for years to come. 

“It will likely look a little different, as we learned a lot along the way,” Means said. “But the power of the partnerships that were formed is undeniable, and we’re all committed to continuing to develop this program.” 

Davis hopes to see more funding that can support community partners’ time commitment and “ensure community partners are compensated as their contributions are invaluable,” Davis said. “Additionally, maintaining a pathway for student learning and engagement with fellowships and providing continued support for research to practice will continue to grow our Larimer County community.” 

Adding more community partners to the mix will also be part of the vision moving forward. 

“In many ways, this first year exceeded our expectations,” Means said. “We hope to continue to build on learnings from this year, strengthen connections in the community, and develop continued enthusiasm for the importance of early childhood mental health.” 

In Their Words

Below are quotes from students who participated in the internship pilot program: 

  • “I am really loving my placement and it is most definitely influencing the direction of my career to continue in the school systems. I think it is so helpful to get to see all the different routes to take within the field of early childhood.”
  • “I feel grateful to be part of the ECMH cohort. I have learned so much. It has also helped me build networks with other professionals. It has also helped me solidify and be confident that this is the work I want to go into.”
  • “It has increased my interest in ECMH. I entered with an interest but unsure if this was the field I wanted to work in long term. Now, my plans post graduation include looking for an ECMH-based job. It also has increased my interest in maternal mental health specifically, as well as working with families and not just children individually.”
  • “Before this, I was not super interested in the concept of early childhood. I was most interested in working with adults, but this internship has changed that for me big time. The experiences of adults often times influence and affect kids as well, which is so interesting.” 

About Early Childhood Council of Larimer County 

Early Childhood Council of Larimer County is an independent nonprofit organization that rallies support, resources, and awareness to ensure every young child in our community has quality early childhood experiences so they thrive from day one. Learn more at

About CSU School of Social Work

Since the first baccalaureate social work major was first offered in 1968, Colorado State University’s School of Social Work has made a continuous effort to develop and maintain a program that is responsive to the standards of the social work profession, to the needs of human services agencies and clients in the state, and to the land-grant mission and goals of CSU. The school’s mission is to provide exemplary education, applied research, and transformative outreach to advance social, environmental, and economic justice; promote equity and equality; alleviate oppression; and enhance human health and well-being across local and global community systems. The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.