Arts & Humanities

Social Work Grad Student's Warming Center Project Serves Community Need

By Andrea DeHaan |

Nicole Burnard

LOGAN, Utah — Nicole Burnard will soon join a near-record number of students to graduate with their Master of Social Work from Utah State University this season. One hundred sixty-one students from nine USU campuses will earn the MSW degree during the 2022-2023 academic year. And like most, Burnard is already contemplating her post-degree options. Like many, she is already at work in her community. Unlike most, Burnard turned her class project into a reality.

“Things just kind of naturally happened,” Burnard said. “I was doing community work right alongside … learning things in class. I was … taking a nonprofit management class from Dr. Jayme Walters, and I was really starting a nonprofit.”

The William A. Burnard Warming Center just wrapped its first season of operation in downtown Logan and managed to serve more than 100 unhoused individuals from December through March. The warming center started by Burnard operates out of a local church to provide temporary overnight accommodations during Cache Valley’s freezing winter months.

After joining the Bear River Local Homeless Council, Burnard, who was “interested in learning what resources were available in the community,” began to connect with people experiencing homelessness and brainstorm ideas around these issues.

A nontraditional student who had “tried” school before, Burnard sought advice from Diane Calloway-Graham, professor emeritus in social work, who was a customer at the bakery where Burnard worked.

“She connected me to Jess Lucero, who is really involved in a lot of the homeless service work here,” Burnard said, “and I think I chose social work because I was so impressed with the faculty.”

In USU’s Social Work program, Burnard found a supportive atmosphere that also aligned with her values, and she earned her Bachelor of Social Work in 2022 before starting the accelerated MSW program.

“Nicole was a student in my nonprofit management class … and the students in my class have to create their own learning journey … so they have a lot of control over what they do,” said Walters, assistant professor of social work. “Nicole came to her consultation and said, ‘This is going to sound crazy, but I want to start a warming center, is that too much for the class?’”

Walters said they decided that Burnard’s class project would focus on creating a survey to assess attitudes toward a warming center in Cache Valley, something Walters calls “walking into the journey of developing this warming center.”

Burnard’s path to this point started by looking at other communities in search of a model to serve Logan’s needs. After several years of volunteer work, an internship at the Bear River Association of Governments, and time spent researching compatible resources, she was approached by Lucero, department head of the Social Work program, about a possible funding opportunity.

Lucero told Burnard about the Center for Community Engagement’s Ivory Prize, an award that recognizes student leadership in communities. The award includes an investment in the winner’s program.

“I think we had like three weeks maybe to just put it together and submit it, but I used my PowerPoint that I had already been presenting to local leadership and stakeholders, and I just completed the written application,” Burnard said. “I was awarded the prize and so that allowed for us to have $10,000 in funding to really get it going.”

Named for her grandfather, a fellow USU alum and social worker, Bill Burnard was the seminal director of the Cache County Children’s Justice Center whose own challenges with mental health and substance use would see him living out of his car before his death.

Burnard said that she sometimes meets people in her work who remind her of her grandfather but says this has only fueled her passion.

“I have always cared about those that are more vulnerable in our communities, those who really don't have as much of a voice or as many opportunities,” she said.

As for how the warming center fits in with her graduation plans, Burnard is confident there is ample support from the community and the Social Work program alike to carry the project forward into next winter and beyond.

“We do have quite a lot of students from the university that volunteer … not just from the social work department, but also public health. We have business students, we even have professors in other departments who are coming down and volunteering directly at the warming center,” she said.

In addition to 100% volunteer staffing, the warming center relies on community support to put together hygiene kits and do tabling to promote awareness and seek donations. They raised $25,000 in the first two months, and one volunteer, USU student and site leader Zoyee Thomas, donated more than 400 hours this winter.

Faculty have also incorporated the warming center into coursework, which helps students more directly understand the issue of homelessness. What started as a class project for Burnard has turned into a much-needed community resource with the ability to house nearly 50 people each night.

Walters, who was asked early on to serve on the warming center’s board, said that there is still work to be done in a community whose closest homeless shelter is 48 miles away in Ogden.

“Our hope is that as we gain support from the community … we can expand our services into our own facility to open up a resource center that can serve the public, the general public, anyone who is experiencing homelessness and provide them with resources so that they can become housed again,” said Walters, this year’s recipient of USU’s Community-Engaged Faculty Presidential Award for her work on several community initiatives including the warming center.

As Burnard looks back on their first season and prepares to graduate, her feelings are bittersweet.

“We've created our own little community here, and we've provided this awesome support for the people coming to the center,” she said. “But it is clear after this first season that this is not my project, this is the community's project.”

“I may have gotten it started,” Burnard said, “but the community is what's gonna carry it through.”

To learn more about the USU students and faculty involved in the William A. Burnard Warming Center, please watch this video produced by University Marketing and Communication:

Video by Taylor Emerson, Digital Journalist, University Marketing & Communications


Andrea DeHaan
Communications Editor
College of Humanities and Social Sciences


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