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 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 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.

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.

Students also were involved in clean-up activities that removed trash and invasive plants from areas along the Scuppernong River and helped conduct an educational health fair focused on nutrition, substance abuse prevention, positive self-image and college preparation for students in the Tyrrell County public schools.

Students worked on environmental clean-up projects, including removing trash from the Scuppernong River.

Physical therapy doctoral student Rob Sykes III removes trash from the Scuppernong River.

By their report, they  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.

Read more details about the trip in the Public Health Leadership Program news.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or