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In rural Jamaica, VCU students offer healthy living outreach and education

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Obie Ogbolu, who graduates this fall, shows children in an early childhood institute how to use a stethoscope to listen to their heartbeat. (Courtesy photo)

A dozen Virginia Commonwealth University students traveled to Jamaica this summer as part of a service learning course that conducts health promotion and health education activities in rural communities.

The class, Jamaica: Community Health Promotion, led health promotion and education activities in eight schools, addressing topics such as personal hygiene, dental health, physical activity, nutrition and goal setting, while also distributing toothbrushes and floss, as well as school supplies.

“The Jamaican children have the experience of engaging with the VCU students in their school environment and learning about ways to protect and promote their personal health as well as that of their community,” said Joann T. Richardson, Ph.D., chair and associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Left to right: VCU students Kendra Nickerson, Vanessa Mba and Shanara Helton engage in physical activity with children at an early childhood institute. Mba was among the inaugural recipients of the Baldacci Student Experiential Learning Fund of the College of Humanities and Sciences, which supported her trip. (Courtesy photo)
Left to right: VCU students Kendra Nickerson, Vanessa Mba and Shanara Helton engage in physical activity with children at an early childhood institute. Mba was among the inaugural recipients of the Baldacci Student Experiential Learning Fund of the College of Humanities and Sciences, which supported her trip. (Courtesy photo)

The class also conducted community health fairs at a variety of sites, providing screenings for blood pressure, glucose, height and weight, body mass index, and vision checks, while also providing education on diabetes and hypertension prevention and control, physical activity, nutrition, stress management, sexual health and STI/HIV prevention.

Richardson, who teaches the class, first initiated the idea in fall 2013 with the support of a $1,000 grant from the VCU Service-Learning office in the Division of Community Engagement. The first group of students traveled to Jamaica during spring break in 2015. Since then, 81 students have participated in the twice-a-year study abroad program (spring break and summer), serving more than 5,000 people and working with approximately 30 community partners.

“During this year’s trips, I witnessed the experience being exceptionally impactful and mutually beneficial for the VCU students and the communities we serve in rural Jamaica,” Richardson said.

Left to right: VCU students Katharine Mikayla Attanasio and Taylor Vittaletti conduct an interactive healthy nutrition lesson at a primary school. (Courtesy photo)
Left to right: VCU students Katharine Mikayla Attanasio and Taylor Vittaletti conduct an interactive healthy nutrition lesson at a primary school. (Courtesy photo)

Over the years, students have come from a variety of majors, including biology, chemistry, kinetic imaging, sociology, anthropology and kinesiology and health sciences. Although the majority of the students have come from kinesiology and health sciences, the program is open to students from any major who are interested in sharing their talents, cross-cultural learning, and serving in a role to deliver community health promotion services to underserved communities in Jamaica.Of this summer’s group, 11 were students in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences and one was from the Department of Biology.

The students are involved in each step of the process, collecting donations such as school supplies, toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss, and personal hygiene products to distribute in Jamaica, designing educational materials and props, and conducting the health promotion and education activities.

The course involves 40 hours of classroom time prior to the trip for orientation, preparation and packing of materials and supplies. Following the trip, the students are responsible for developing and presenting a public symposium at which they reflect on the experience.

“Students’ positive perceptions of themselves as well as the world were literally transformed,” Richardson said. “The maturity and growth in such a short span of time, either on the one-week or two-week trip, repeatedly amazes the students and gives them clarity and focus, not only regarding future career pursuits but also influences them to include service in their life’s work regardless to their chosen future profession.”

Kendra Nickerson, a senior health, physical education and exercise science major, with children at a primary school. (Courtesy photo)
Kendra Nickerson, a senior health, physical education and exercise science major, with children at a primary school. (Courtesy photo)

Kendra Nickerson, a senior health, physical education and exercise science major, was among this summer’s class.

“I learned so much during this trip and became one with myself and the people of Jamaica,” she said. “The term ‘one love’ really does hold true in [Jamaica]. The people are warm and welcoming, making us feel like family during our visit.”

Heather Adams, a health, physical education and exercise science major who just graduated, said the class was a life-changing experience.

“It was way outside my comfort zone to go and work with people in a country that I had never been to before, but now I want to go back and do more,” she said. “This one step outside of my comfort zone changed me as a person and changed who I am striving to be to make an impact on the world.”