Public health students help vulnerable communities get ahead of the storm

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USF College of Public Health undergraduate students were able to get out of the classroom and into the field this summer as they served some of Hillsborough County’s most vulnerable communities to help residents in building their hurricane preparedness plans.  

Through the Public Health Innovation Studio summer course, launched in partnership with the Hillsborough County Department of Social Services­, students engaged with community leaders and conducted home visits and workshops in Wimauma, Ruskin, Town ‘n’ Country, Progress Village and the University Area.

Anna Wright, Allan Avendano and Ryan Charles conducting outreach in Wimauma, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn)

“Growing up in Hillsborough County, I knew the size of it and I also knew that we had a large population. However, I didn’t know the various types of vulnerable populations that lived in Hillsborough,” said COPH student Camryn Henry. “This class alone has shown me multiple types of vulnerable populations and what makes them at such an increased risk, especially during hurricanes.”

Students visited homes to provide educational materials, written in both English and Spanish, and answered their questions about preparedness. They also conducted home visits to help families with special medical needs through a new partnership with the Florida Department of Public Health.

“Prior to our arrival, we made arrangements with families that had special medical needs to be able to meet one-on-one with them to develop a disaster plan through the newly launched ‘Lean on Me’ program here in Hillsborough County,” said Elizabeth Dunn, the instructor for this course.  

‘Lean on Me’ and ‘Project Flashlight’ are two new projects launched this summer by COPH faculty and students in collaboration with the Hillsborough County Department of Social Services, FDOH Office of Public Health Preparedness and the Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management.

The projects were designed to bring teams into the most vulnerable communities that are at risk of storm surge to provide education to residents about their risks of flooding and to prepare them for the hurricane season.

During home visits with those with special needs, students were able to provide residents a preparedness kit that was provided by the Department of Health and help them develop a plan, according to Dunn.

Samia Dutra Ozorio supplies a Wimauma resident with special needs with a preparedness kit during a home visit. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn)

“Many felt incredibly vulnerable and unprepared if another hurricane were to hit the area and were thankful for providing this valuable information,” Dunn said.

In all, students and volunteers were able to connect with 234 residents in Hillsborough County, with 37 residents specifically reached through the ‘Lean on Me’ program—targeted for those with special medical needs.

Students also conducted an evening workshop with residents in a migrant farm worker housing complex in Ruskin where they met with 13 families to help them develop their preparedness plans and answer questions. Since the residents were primarily Spanish speaking, alumna Andrea Tristan led this workshop in collaboration with current MPH student Patricia Useche Santana.

USF Students and faculty ready to go out into the community with local partners from Wholesome Community Ministries and Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn)

“I am so happy to have been a part of this experience,” said COPH student Anna Wright. “I just want more people to be involved so they can fully understand the magnitude of power through educational and compassionate outreach.”

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health