New normal means new volunteerism for students

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USF College of Public Health students have not let the “new normal” stop them from volunteering and providing services to the community.

ETA Sigma Gamma (ESG), the National Health Education Honorary open to graduate students within the COPH focusing on health education and undergrads with a minor in public health, illustrated a recent example of how students continue to forge forward with service in the name of public health.

In September, Dr. Anna Armstrong, associate professor and ESG faculty coordinator, worked with the Valencia Lakes 55+ Community to address their need for someone to give a presentation on how COVID-19 affects the senior populations.

“The goal was to have our attendees leave the presentation more informed on the ways in which COVID is affecting the aging population and clear steps they could take to keep themselves and their loved ones safe,” said Natalie Erasme, MPH student and director of communications for the Public Health Student Association. “To our surprise there were over 70 people tuned in to our presentation. The high number of attendees is a testament to how great the need is for more information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on a local level.”

Erasme, who lost her grandmother to COVID-19 early into the pandemic, said one way to prevent the spread of COVID and unnecessary deaths is through strategic education.

“Health education is important because knowledge is power and knowing exactly what to do and having the resources to implement the newfound knowledge could mean people in the Valencia Lakes community live a longer life with their loved ones,” she said.

Still of MPH student Natalie Erasme providing COVID-19 information to the Valencia Lakes 55+ Community. Watch the full presentation here. (Photo source: YouTube)

MPH student Troisha Busano said visibility matters, especially now. 

“It’s such a wonderful thing when we as public health educators can go outside of our university and help touch our community,” she said. “We got into this field to help others and educate them so when we do what we set out to do it is very empowering. The elderly population is one that can be neglected at times so for us to actively seek them out to help educate them on a level that is easier for them to understand I feel proud of the work we do.”

Still of COPH alumna Katelyn Agosto providing safety tips via Zoom to campers for Tampa Parks and Recreation, one of the many groups USF Health Service Corps has partnered with. (Photo course: Tampa Parks and Recreation Facebook page)

According to Ellen Kent, coordinator of USF Health Service Corps and the Sunshine ERC, the rapid transition from in-person service events to virtual service has been a successful one.

“This was indeed quite a surprise that we would need to cease all of our in-person community service events so rapidly last March in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Kent, who has been coordinating service opportunities for USF Health Service Corps since its inception in 2004. “During the past six months I have tried to adapt and act carefully and creatively to develop new health-related virtual service opportunities for our COPH and other USF Health and pre-health professional students.”

Kent said that she collaborated with university and community partners to make sure that new virtual service projects would be not only beneficial and meaningful, but also safe and approved by the University and health experts.

Students have now taken to their telephones, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other virtual platforms to leave a public health impact.

“With this shift from in person to virtual service projects, many of the Service Corps projects during the past six months have focused on teaching, mentoring, and providing support and encouragement to people of all ages and abilities,” Kent said.

Kent said one such virtual service projects implemented last spring was a virtual health professions panel discussion with youth. Twenty-one COPH students participated in these panel discussions, along with 28 other USF Health students, to reach more than 150 children and teens to explain why they chose to pursue a health profession.

Another successful example of a new partnership is between the Service Corps and City of Tampa Parks and Recreation Department. This initiative included interactive health lessons for children attending Parks and Recreation summer camps. As a result, COPH students taught 16 different lessons to 400 elementary-school aged children. 

According to Kent, pre-COVID, USF students would contribute to safety awareness events throughout the year with Safe Kids and other community partners. These service opportunities were revamped to a virtual format where presentations on “summer safety” topics were conducted with families via Zoom and Facebook Live.

COPH undergraduate student Sarah Shephard spoke on the topic of fire safety.

COPH undergraduate student Sarah Shephard (right). (Photo courtesy of Ellen Kent)

“With the amazing support from USF Service Health Corps I have had the opportunity to teach my knowledge of food and fire safety to those who are unaware of the impact it has on our health, safety and peace of mind,” Shephard said.  “I had such a blast during the Safe Kids presentations, as well as the virtual presentations for children in the summer camp with City of Tampa Parks and Recreation. The children taught me we can still have fun and learn virtually! It was also such a joy to teach and speak with teen mothers of the Woman to Woman program, being able to learn of their concerns and expose them to food and fire safety repercussions they were unaware of. My passion, like many others, is to help people and have fun while doing it and the virtual service events allowed me to do just that. I am excited to continue my involvement in the future fall virtual events.”

Kent said one of most successful virtual projects developed has been virtual reading hours and special events with F.R.I.E.N.D.S. (Families, Respect, Inspire, Education, Networking for Down Syndrome and Special Needs).  

“The reading evenings have actually blossomed into a successful support group in which USF Health students and teens/young adults with special needs read and discuss books with universal themes of diversity, tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness,” Kent said. “A number of the student volunteers with the Colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Public Health and Arts and Sciences and the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. members also mentioned that they had ‘a blast!’”

Still of the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. “New School Year Party” which featured dancing, demonstrations of how to make healthy snacks, free exercise routines to do at home and funny stories and pictures from our first days of school. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Kent)

Kent said during the spring and summer semesters, 19 COPH students and 43 other USF Health students contributed to this successful community partnership and have served 30 youth and young adults.  

Katelyn Agosto, a COPH alumna, volunteered on behalf of the Service Corps for Faces of Courage to provide emotional support and encouragement to cancer patients by leading how-to virtual mini-lessons on skills ranging from drawing techniques, yoga and how to make mug muffins and create salads. A complete photo album of what students taught for Faced of Courage can be viewed here.

Still of COPH alumna Katelyn Agosto teaching drawing techniques. Watch her full video here. (Photo source: YouTube)

Kent said all these virtual USF Health Service Corps events, which were initiated this past spring and summer, have been fine-tuned and are being continued into the fall semester.

“I have truly enjoyed helping our students identify virtual service events that might be of special interest to them, fit into their busy schedules, enable them to explore new areas of public health, have fun, meet other COPH and USF Health students and make a  positive difference in our community,” Kent said. “That is what our USF Health Service Corps is all about!”

To learn more about the Service Corps and virtual volunteer opportunities, visit the website, or contact Ms. Ellen Kent, service corps coordinator, at 813-974-6622.

Related media:

Spring Semester 2020 Photos

Summer Semester 2020 Photos

Fall Semester 2020 USF Health Service Corps Photo Gallery

Spring 2020 Service Corps Opportunities  

Summer 2020 Service Corps Opportunities  

Fall 2020 Service Corps Opportunities

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health