Elon advances a growing national movement, engaging recent graduates in a year of community service following graduation.
By Natalie Allison Janicello ’13
As she looked around the buzzing farmer’s market on an early spring afternoon, Catherine Palmer ’15 finally breathed a sigh of relief.
For months, she had been planning for that date, April 5, with anticipation and also a bit of anxiety. Her goal was to provide residents in an east Burlington, N.C., neighborhood with a source of fresh produce to supplement their limited grocery options at nearby dollar stores and mini-marts. Palmer, from Winchester, Mass., had spent months forming and meeting with a steering committee to launch a farmer’s market from scratch to address problems of obesity and other chronic health conditions in a low-income neighborhood. She set up a system to allow patrons to pay with their government-provided nutrition assistance cards, knocked on neighborhood doors passing out fliers and hoped that the farmers she coaxed into joining a brand new market would show up.
And they did, some even selling out of food that first day. Week after week, Palmer saw a dozen or more of the same faces. She celebrated with the woman who lost 16 pounds after finally being able to shop for and prepare vegetables. She got to know the vendors she recruited, people who were successfully turning a profit at the market.
What Palmer saw unfold at the North Park Farmers Market served as a guiding principle throughout her year of service as one of the four inaugural Graduate Fellows in the Elon-Alamance Health Partners program. “It sounds really cliché, but my health and well-being depend on your health and well-being, and that all depends on the health and well-being of our community,” Palmer says. “I think it’s really important for people [of privilege] to understand that their life experiences are not the norm, and doing a year of service will expose you to that.”
The Health Partners program is a key initiative in Elon’s efforts to encourage recent graduates to put their education into practice in real-world situations through a year of community service. “The service-year model has impact and can strengthen our communities and provide challenging, meaningful work to young people,” Elon President Leo M. Lambert says. “We are excited to join this work at Elon, building on a long campus tradition of community engagement and service learning.”
Setting the wheels in motion
The idea for the Elon-Alamance Health Partners program was inspired in part by retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who chairs the Service Year Alliance and previously led the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project. He shared his vision with President Lambert in 2013 and visited Elon in fall 2015 for the North Carolina Campus Compact Presidents Forum to promote voluntary civilian service to the United States, with the ultimate aim of creating one million civilian service opportunities for young people. During his address at the forum, McChrystal challenged college and university leaders to expand service year opportunities.
At Elon, work was already underway. Provost Steven House and Preston Hammock, president of Alamance Regional Medical Center (ARMC), had created the Health Partners program to support four health and wellness organizations in Alamance County.
Four 2015 Elon graduates were selected to work on community health initiatives with ARMC, which provides comprehensive health services to local residents; the Alamance County Health Department, which addresses maternal and child health, communicable disease prevention and environmental health; Healthy Alamance, which brings together community residents and leaders to address health needs and improve well-being; and Impact Alamance, a foundation that invests in community health projects with a focus on children. Elon provided a modest stipend, health insurance and housing while ARMC provided additional program funding.
“This program prepares our students to be global citizens, helps them find placement after Elon and benefits the community,” House says. “It just seemed like a perfect fit for Elon and demonstrates our commitment to give back to Alamance County. This is where we work and where many of our employees live. We are committed to making Alamance County an outstanding and very special place to live.”
Working in the community
Shelby Smith entered Elon as a business major but later made the switch to public health studies. After volunteering at the Open Door Clinic, a medical facility in Burlington for the uninsured and underserved, Smith realized her true passion was related to maternal and child health. Her placement at the Alamance County Health Department provided Smith the opportunity to manage $114,000 in state funding to enhance infant mortality reduction programs and $20,000 for local efforts to improve the health of women and their children in Alamance County.
Among other things, she started several workgroups and revitalized a decade-old program—Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies—which was still active but dwindling in numbers. She helped local women become trained as lactation consultants and held focus groups to hear about the needs of mothers and children in the county. After the initial grant funding ran out, Smith says, the mothers continued showing up and asked her to hold more meetings. “Building those connections with community members was the most rewarding part about Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies,” says Smith, a native of La Plata, Md.
Seeing people empowered when they were able to speak out helped Smith shape her own philosophy of leadership in public health. She learned about the importance of listening carefully to the specific needs of those being served by an organization. Because of her experience, Smith decided to continue her work at the health department for another year before entering an accelerated bachelor of science and a master’s program in nursing at Emory University in 2017.
“As the year went on, I started to reflect on how I felt so much a part of the community here,” says Smith, who is now working to start a community-based volunteer doula program, training women to assist with childbirth and provide support after the baby is born. “I felt those connections with people and wasn’t ready to give that up so quickly.”
Like the other fellows, Hannah Allen felt it wasn’t her time to leave Alamance County when she graduated. A public health studies major from Cordova, Tenn., Allen planned to spend a year in a service program before training to become a doctor, and had looked into AmeriCorps, City Year and a couple of programs abroad. “I wanted to focus more on real-world experience before I went on to medical school,” she says. “I just wanted to do a little more working with people.” With existing relationships built through her volunteer work at the Open Door Clinic, Allen dove into work at ARMC’s community outreach department. “Instead of going off to a big city I didn’t know, I chose to stay in a community I already felt comfortable with,” Allen says.
Kathy Colville, ARMC’s community outreach director and co-chair of the Health Partners steering committee, praised Allen’s work in facilitating a coalition of local safety net providers, organizations working to expand health care access to the uninsured and those with Medicare or Medicaid. Those agencies often operated independently from one another, but thanks to Allen’s work are now meeting regularly to discuss what they can accomplish together. For example, Allen worked with them to establish local bus routes to allow those without transportation to access their services. She also facilitated long-awaited grant funding to establish dental services for uninsured adults, Colville says.
Allen was inspired by working alongside others who support people who can’t afford health care. “What I learned this year is there are so many people out there doing exactly what I want to do: volunteering at free clinics,” Allen says. “It’s one thing to meet them briefly. But to work side by side with them and hear about their day-to-day experiences and the struggles of their job, made me feel like I am going down the right path. This is what I need to be doing, and I can do it and make a difference.”
Economics major Maria Restuccio, of Westerville, Ohio, plans to make a career working at the intersection of international health, business and finance. She discovered her passion during her sophomore year when she studied abroad in Senegal and lived in a rural South-Saharan village with a Peace Corps volunteer. “I saw a lot of inefficiency with international health care aid economics,” she says. She came back to Elon and conducted her senior thesis research on the impact of aid allocation on disease prevalence and outcomes.
As an Elon-Alamance Health Partners fellow, Restuccio worked as a junior program officer for Impact Alamance. There she developed an evaluation plan and logic model for each of the organization’s funding priorities, conducted community-based research and developed relationships with the nonprofit organizations the foundation funds. “I knew I wanted to take more of a systems view,” Restuccio says. “That’s just my personality type. I work better on the research side than one-on-one with clients, and I knew that about myself.”
Restuccio is amazed at the opportunities she had in the workplace this past year. She met with health care leaders, was taken by mentors Tracey Grayzer and Marcy Green to hospital board meetings, and met people in a wide range of jobs in health care settings. At Impact Alamance’s community launch party for the organization’s first annual report, Restuccio realized all of her day-to-day interactions with community leaders and agency heads had resulted in a network of new contacts. “I was in a room full of 80 community leaders and I knew every single person on a first-name basis,” she says. “It wasn’t exactly your traditional boss/entry-level employee relationship. It was very much also a mentorship, and they’ve taken the extra time and effort to figure out what I want to do and help me along in that process.”
Building on those great experiences, Restuccio will enroll this fall at the London School of Economics and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in a master’s program in health care policy, planning and financing.
Growing service opportunities
Tom Brinkley, executive director of Elon’s Student Professional Development Center and co-chair of the Elon-Alamance Health Partners steering committee, says there is a growing number of students interested in providing a year of service after graduation. Popular programs include Teach For America, City Year, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. He says the committee has assessed Elon’s homegrown program and made some adjustments as it continues with a new cohort of 2016 Elon graduates who are now on the job. Instead of living on campus, for instance, this year’s fellows were awarded a stipend for off-campus housing so they can better assimilate into the local community. The new fellows are Olivia Murray (ARMC), Maggie Bailey (Healthy Alamance), Zachary Fisher (Alamance County Health Department) and Anna Patterson (Impact Alamance).
Meanwhile, Elon has launched a second service year initiative with support from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. The Community Impact Fellows program is placing four 2016 graduates into high-need elementary schools in Alamance County, working on literacy and numeracy with preschool children and parents. Kimberly Beale, Takeva Mitchell, Kanthima Pumhirun and Keeyatta Russell spent their senior year at Elon doing research and preparing for full-time work at Newlin, Eastlawn, Andrews and Haw River elementary schools.
“By working with parents and children to help prepare 4-year-olds for kindergarten, supervising current Elon students who volunteer as tutors and preparing the next four Community Impact Fellows,” Lambert says, “these graduates will have a tremendous impact on the crucial role of getting children ready to read.”
The benefits of Elon’s two pilot service year programs are already apparent to many in the local community. “When Dr. House spoke at our signing ceremony, one of the things he mentioned was that the world needs Elon graduates, and I absolutely agree,” Colville says. “We need them, and we didn’t even know how much we needed them until we had them. We get a chance again to see the world through their eyes—through learning eyes, and eyes that maybe don’t take for granted some of the things we’ve come to think always have to be that way.”
The fellows are equally grateful for the service year opportunities they have enjoyed. Reflecting on the professional growth she experienced while in the program, Smith says the greatest asset was the mentoring she received from Stacie Saunders, executive director of the Alamance County Health Department. “I can’t imagine my first year out of school in a job without that guided mentorship, now that I’ve had it,” she says. “The Elon-Alamance Health Partners helped me develop skills for communication, facilitation, problem-solving and critical thinking that will be useful no matter what chosen career path I take.”