An unconventional spring break

Public health students, others at UNC, help with Community Health Assessment in Tyrrell County
March 24, 2014

For some, the words “spring break” may elicit images of white beaches, bathing suits and tropical paradise, but not so for a group of students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

During the week of March 9, 22 undergraduate, graduate and professional students and faculty members in public health, physical therapy, social work and nursing spent their spring breaks in Tyrrell County, N.C., completing various community health projects. Service work ranged from community health assessments to environmental clean-up to health promotion in homes and at Columbia (N.C.) middle and high schools.

Dr. Cheryll Lesneski

Dr. Cheryll Lesneski

The experience was part of a service learning course co-taught by Cheryll Lesneski, DrPH, clinical assistant professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Public Health Leadership Program.

“This is our fifth service trip to Tyrell County, and the partnerships that have developed over the years between our UNC students, faculty and community members are rewarding on so many levels,” Lesneski said.  “We all enjoy each other’s company while working side-by-side on community-identified health and environmental issues.  Our goal is to help improve the social and economic determinants of health in this beautiful county, which has some of the highest rates of poverty in the state.” 

Students make a plan to conduct Tyrrell County's community health assessment.

Darlene Baker and Stephanie Dunlow, from UNC’s School of Nursing, make a plan to conduct Tyrrell County’s community health assessment.

“What drew me to the class was the opportunity to see firsthand a lot of the situations I’ve been learning about in other public health classes,” said Linda Yang, a Bachelor of Science in Public Health student in environmental health sciences at the Gillings School. “Having grown up in Raleigh, it was eye-opening to see how people in more rural areas of North Carolina lived, and to compare and contrast that with my own experiences.”

All counties in North Carolina are required to complete a Community Health Assessment every four years to examine factors affecting the health of the population. UNC faculty members and students interviewed randomly selected residents at 114 homes in Tyrrell County using a health opinion survey developed by the district public health department. Residents’ responses to survey questions will help to increase understanding of issues that affect quality of life in the county.  The public health agency will complete the rest of the required 210 interviews and will prepare a summary of the findings as part of their Community Health Assessment Report, which will be due in a few months.

Community clean-up activities began immediately upon arrival in Columbia, N.C., on Sunday, March 9.  Students teamed up with local community members to help with trash pick-up near the boardwalk and with raking out the invasive alligator weed from the Scuppernong River.  Other members applied a slip-resistant paint on two ramps at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office to improve safety.

Environmental work continued on Tuesday at Jockey’s Ridge State Park with removal of love grass, a plant species native to South Africa, from a parking lot and trailhead area and along part of the trail.

Linda Yang and Daria Lewis remove invasive plant species from a trail area.

Linda Yang and Daria Lewis remove invasive plant species from a trail area.

On Monday, high-school and middle-school students from Columbia interacted with UNC students at an educational health fair focused on nutrition, substance abuse prevention, tobacco use and side effects, healthy relationships, and overuse injuries and concussions.

On Wednesday, the UNC students worked with students in the public schools on topics including mentoring, college preparation, bullying prevention and positive self-image, and exercise, by way of a relay-style boot camp.

With the help of Terry Donoghue, physical education teacher, some UNC members painted yellow and blue Wildcat tracks, the sports teams’ logo, in front of the school to aid in traffic flow, and also repainted the smaller Wildcat tracks that mark the one-mile loop around Columbia. The one-mile route is intended to encourage increased physical activity within the community.

Another focus of service learning activities for the UNC group was the Tyrrell County Senior Center. Center director Dee Dee Bullock worked with the Department of Health and Human Services and Meals on Wheels to identify residents interested in receiving home visits by the UNC team. 

During each home visit, an interdisciplinary team of faculty members and students assessed the resident’s strength, balance, mobility and blood pressure and evaluated home safety.  Students also installed smoke detectors and night-lights and helped with reviewing and organizing medications.

“I now know I want not only to work globally – but also in rural America, where people literally in our own backyard don’t have access to health care and necessary services,” said Samantha Whiteside, who is scheduled to receive a Master of Public Health degree in the Gillings School’s Public Health Leadership Program in May 2015.

“Interacting with other passionate UNC students and faculty members in Tyrrell County not only opened my eyes to the importance of advancing the health and opportunities in rural communities but also opened my heart,” she said.

At the Columbia Medical Center, UNC students helped Sue Griffin, RN, with patient education materials and chart review organization.  Outdated patient follow-up documents were removed from current files to help manage patient data. Diabetic education materials and supplies stored at the clinic were arranged and properly labeled for staff use.

Throughout their stay in Tyrrell County, UNC team members found local people to be very welcoming.

Students left in groups to conduct health assessments in Tyrrell County neighborhoods.

Public health students Linda Yang, Meg Mangus and Kelsey Gustaveson conduct health assessments in a Tyrrell County neighborhood.

“Residents were so gracious and kind to let us into their lives and homes,” said Meg Mangus, Master of Public Health student in the Gillings School’s Public Health Leadership Program. 

Students learned about the challenges and joys of living in a rural area and about the many factors that have an impact on health – including access to health services, good jobs, education, clean water and air, nutritious food, and safe housing and environments. 

Kelsey Gustaveson, a senior in environmental health sciences who hopes to become a medical social worker, said the trip opened her eyes to the wealth and health inequities in North Carolina.

“This was my first experience working with an underserved population,” she said. “It was sobering and humbling to see a community with one nurse practitioner to meet most of a community’s health needs. Conducting the Community Health Assessment made me appreciative of the services we have available in the Triangle – and made me much more aware of how big a role wealth plays in health.”

Other co-leaders of the class were faculty members Sonda Oppewal, PhD, RN, clinical associate professor in the School of Nursing; Vicki Mercer, PT, PhD, in the School of Medicine’s Division of Physical Therapy; and Joanne S. Caye, PhD, MSW, recently retired clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work.


This article was written by Samantha Whiteside and Daria Lewis, with input from others.

Members of the group send their thanks to all community partners, including Midge Ogletree, Terry Donoghue, Dee Dee Bullock, Justin Boner, Ed Christopher, Billie Patrick, Irene Cavall, Sue Griffin, the Columbia Rotary Club, the Columbia Police Department and Tyrrell County Sheriff’s Office, the Eastern 4-H Environmental and Education Conference Center, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Center, and The Scuppernong Reminder. Without the help of these community partners, the more than 650 hours of service work completed in Tyrrell County could not have taken place.