Twenty-one students and three faculty members from UNC-Chapel Hill traveled to Tyrrell County, North Carolina, to work with community partners on a variety of community activities related to the social determinants of health. The 2018 trip marks UNC’s ninth year of interdisciplinary teams traveling to Tyrrell County to engage in service-learning activities during spring break.
The trip is part of a one-credit hour service-learning course that unites graduate and undergraduate students from the Division of Physical Therapy, School of Nursing, School of Public Health, and the College of Arts and Sciences. Faculty supervisors of the trip include Sonda Oppewal from the School of Nursing, Vicki Mercer from the Division of Physical Therapy, and Joanne Caye from the School of Social Work. While the group was only in Tyrrell County five days, the students and faculty hope that their work and partnerships will have long-lasting impacts within the communities they served.
The team devoted a substantial amount of time to senior health and the challenges faced by clients with limited transportation in rural areas. Physical therapy and nursing students completed several home visits with the elderly, concentrating on health concerns, falls risk assessments, and improving accessibility in their homes. Additionally, a team of students and faculty conducted falls risk assessments at the Tyrrell County Senior Center in neighboring Columbia.
“I appreciated the experience of getting to screen older adults for falls risk and their own health concerns,” explained Helen Buchanan, a first-year student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program. “I was able to do two home visits with older ladies I met through the screens, which was very impactful for me.”
Another team of UNC students planned mentoring sessions at Columbia High School for the senior class to encourage and give advice on how to pursue their goals after graduation. UNC students partnered with the Learning Center to provide high school seniors with resources for planning for post-graduation opportunities, hosted a guest speaker who is an alumna of Columbia High School, and held small-group conversations to share their own experiences as first-generation college students at UNC.
Charity Lackey, a nursing student who assisted in the coordination of the mentoring day, described her experiences: “My time at Columbia taught me that these students have stories, and breathing life into them generates energy that can surmount any unwarranted vulnerability they experience.”
Additionally, UNC students hosted health and physical education activities at the elementary, middle, and high schools for more than 300 students. Activities covered a wide variety of topics, such as analyzing food labels, promoting an active lifestyle, and discussing characteristics of healthy relationships. Through these activities, the group aimed to engage youth in their health and their future opportunities for growth.
Another social determinant of health explored included the availability of nutritious, affordable food. Teams of students partnered with the Church Road Emergency Food Closet to assist in the reception of donations, the distribution of food to community members, and the organization of the food closet’s current space. Before the trip, Candace Beddard, MSN nursing student, led the creation of a healthy-eating guide with a recipe plan to make meals for $80 per week for a family of four. The only health care provider in the county, a family nurse practitioner who leads the Columbia Medical Center, and an RN who works with her, requested this project. These guides were distributed at the main grocery store and other community gathering points within the county.
“It was difficult to plan a menu for a week on such a tight budget, but it turned out to be incredibly gratifying knowing that we have produced something that benefits people financially and nutritionally,” said Erica Hennes, an undergraduate student who assisted in the planning and distribution of the guide. “People were receptive to our guides, and we hope that this type of project will have a lasting impact for diverse families and individuals throughout the community.”
In order to reach community members who may experience accessibility issues with fresh food, students partnered with Columbia Medical Center to plant over 300 vegetable seedlings that will be delivered to community members.
Finally, students participated in several projects to assist the county in maintaining its rich ecosystems, which form an important portion of county tourism. Students gathered trash along the boardwalk at the Scuppernong River in Columbia and removed an invasive plant species, alligator weed, from the riverbank. A team of students also assisted Pettigrew State Park with cleanup after the recent nor’easter clearing nearly four miles of trail. The students enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the area’s ecosystems and partnered with a variety of related stakeholders.
While reflecting on the week, students and faculty members noted the welcoming nature of the community, the need to continue creating sustainable bridges between urban and rural areas of North Carolina, and the interdisciplinary collaboration required to complete the week’s activities.
“With all of our different backgrounds, we can come together and accomplish so much,” observed Candace Beddard, a second-year nurse practitioner student. “That’s what I want to do in practice: include different disciplines to accomplish as much as we can for our patients.”
The students were grateful for everyone in Tyrrell County who welcomed them into the community, and for all of the hard work that community partners complete in Tyrrell County each day.