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Students, faculty use trip to help NC residents in need

By Susan White

Over five days in March in one of the state’s poorest counties, Megan Key said she quickly learned about the power of collaboration in addressing poverty. Key, a first-year MSW student, was among 20 UNC students and faculty, including Joanne Caye, a School of Social Work clinical assistant professor, who volunteered this year to travel to Tyrrell County in eastern North Carolina as part of an alternative Spring Break trip.

The UNC team – mainly students from Public Health, Nursing and Physical Therapy – provided needy residents with a variety of physical, medical and mental health services, including home repair and yard work, stress management, fall assessments and screenings for depression.

Working alongside her University colleagues showed Key the importance of interdisciplinary work, especially when tackling complex needs in rural communities. “There’s no need to fight over whose client it actually is,” she said. “It’s more important to work together and consider the problem from many different viewpoints and use each other’s different skills to help the client.”

For many of Tyrrell’s 5,000 residents, the biggest challenges are economically and health-related. Although the county is just west of some of North Carolina’s most popular tourist beaches, nearly 27 percent of its residents live below the federal poverty line. The county has no hospital and no practicing physicians; a nurse practitioner provides much of the care, Caye said. Perhaps more surprising, some still do not have indoor plumbing.

“The theme of our trip was health disparities and boy did they ever see them,” Caye said. “These are people who are not easily going to get to a regular doctor’s visit. I don’t think they’ve had dental care in eons. It’s just not something that they do.”

The UNC team worked closely with county social workers to identify about two dozen residents with specific requests for help around their homes or with their health and mental health care.  While some of the students cooked and froze meals, others raked, painted and cleaned – jobs home health aids are not allowed to do. Meanwhile, nursing students performed blood pressure checks and talked with residents about prescription medicines.

“A lot of people really just wanted somebody to talk to,” Caye said. “They talked a lot about not being able to see a lot of people and feeling isolated. But they mainly wanted to ask the students about what they did. They were really interested in the students, and it was a chance to be around a lot of young folks.”

Seeing so much poverty up close was enlightening, especially for the nursing and physical therapy students who don’t usually get to see their patients in their homes, Caye said. “It became really clear for them that when they tell patients when they’re in the hospital or at a clinic that they should do x, y or z that they don’t know where these folks are coming from, and they don’t know what their situation is like in their home,” Caye said.

For Key, seeing classroom lessons play out in real life was just as educational. Although she’d been taught that social workers often must work closely with community leaders, she discovered how valuable that collaboration is during some of the home visits.

“Some individuals had an automatic distrust of us as outsiders and seemed skeptical to receive the services we were providing,” she said. “It was important to have that partnership with community leaders so that they could give us an insight into the needs of the community and help others feel more comfortable with us.”

During the trip, students also were given a chance to relax a bit and to pitch-in on an environmental project. The group traveled to Jockey’s Ridge, where they spent a portion of the day shoveling oyster shells into bagged netting for man-made reefs. The reefs help protect the surrounding wetlands.

Although the team could have chosen a more traditional Spring Break vacation, students and faculty agreed that working together and having the opportunity to help people in need was more rewarding.

“I think it really helped some of them get out of their bubble,” Caye said. “We had students who were afraid to do rural work and one student especially said, ‘I think this is going to be a career changer for me.’ She said she now understood how critical it is that we have educated providers who are willing to work in rural places.”