It’s a busy weekday and the waiting room at the Winston-Salem Community Care Center is full of patients. Tripp Causby analyzes glucose levels.
In August, Causby became one of the first participants from Wake Forest to AmeriCorps Public Healtha new federally funded program that aims to address urgent public health needs in communities and train the next generation of public health leaders.
“I’m getting a lot of hands-on clinical experience,” he says. “The program has also exposed me to many inequities in health care that I hope to one day combat as a physician.”
Last year, the Community Care Center provided 11,000 patient visits, making it one of the largest free health clinics in the Southeast. Causby helps with patient navigation services where he triages patients and serves as patient coordinator. He also helps with the clinic’s drug dispensary and writes grants, in addition to doing lab tests.
“Many of our uninsured clients work two or three jobs. When we have more volunteers, we can see more patients,” said Tim Clontz, executive director/CEO of the Community Care Center. “Tripp is a superstar. He is engaging and patients get along well with him.
Public Health AmeriCorps was born out of the immediate response to the pandemic. It’s a historic partnership between AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This initiative is funded by $400 million in American Rescue Act dollars. State and local organizations received more than 80 grants totaling more than $60 million in the first year.
VolunteerNC distributes funding and provides supervision, support, and training to AmeriCorps program members and staff.
Wake Forest University was selected be part of the first wave of national beneficiaries. It is one of two North Carolina-based higher education institutions in the inaugural cohort.
“Even before the pandemic, we had a shortage of public health professionals and between burnout, retirements and exhaustion, we saw that the shortage of public health workers persisted” , said AJ Pearlman, director of the Public Health AmeriCorps program.
According to a recent analysisstate and local health departments must hire at least 80,000 additional full-time equivalent positions — an increase of nearly 80% — to provide adequate infrastructure and a minimum of public health services.
“What we’ve found is that partnerships between public health and higher education are important,” Pearlman said.
Wake Forest currently has 14 AmeriCorps Public Health participants serving at host sites in Forsyth County.
The University partners with local nonprofit organizations to identify community needs, and students are placed at the uninsured Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Clinic; The Community Care Center; Forsyth County Department of Public Health; The Shalom Project medical clinic; The Twin City Harm Reduction Collective; Cancer services and ministry for the fight against crises.
“It’s important for students to think about health holistically,” said Marianne Magjuka, executive director of the Wake Forest Civic and Community Engagement Office.
“The mission of our office is to connect students to the community to effect meaningful change. This program is a wonderful example of Pro Humanitate in action and helps students understand what it means to be an engaged member of the community and how they can have an impact wherever they live,” she added.
All this work is a huge commitment. Students must complete 900 hours over a year. They receive a modest living allowance and a scholarship for their service.
“In addition to their actual service time, we host monthly talks with public health officials from the local community who come to speak to students about their work, the challenges they face, and the trends they see on the pitch,” said Amanda Alston, WFU. Deputy Director of Community Partnerships.
For a first-generation student from poverty, her experience in the program brings new meaning and fulfillment.
Rosa Almonte, a junior from Greenville, North Carolina, didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for the new program, but she knew she wanted to be part of it.
The psychology major is currently volunteering at the Crisis Control Ministry in Winston-Salem. The non-profit organization provides short-term emergency assistance to residents of Forsyth and Stokes County who are experiencing a financial crisis. This includes help with rent, utilities, prescription drugs and food.
“Anything I can do here, I will do,” she said.
Nutrition also plays a role in public health and well-being.
Towards the end of a busy afternoon, Almonte restocks the shelves of the organization’s choice pantry. Customers browse and select groceries and household items.
“The need is so great,” she said. “There aren’t many volunteers who speak Spanish, so just being able to tell them ‘hey, I speak your language, I can understand you’ and making them feel welcome is always very meaningful. For me. .”
Almonte has translated some of the organization’s brochures and other nutrition education materials into Spanish.
“For us, it’s about building better lives, and this year Wake Forest Public AmeriCorps really helped us do just that,” said Abbey McCall, director of community and volunteer relations at Crisis Control Ministry.
A few miles away, at a church near downtown Winston-Salem, Wake Forest Senior and Public Health AmeriCorps volunteer Danielle Jefferson works with the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective responds to calls for help from community members struggling with substance abuse and addiction.
As she assembles naloxone kits, she stops to check supply levels for an upcoming mobile event in the community.
Like many states across the country, North Carolina is not immune to the opioid epidemic and drug overdoses. More than 4,000 people have died from a drug overdose in 2021, according to North Carolina health officials. This is the highest number of overdose deaths in a single year ever recorded in the state.
“We see people from all walks of life and all walks of life,” said Jefferson, who began volunteering with the agency in September.
In Forsyth County, those numbers are close to home.
“In the first three months of 2023 alone, we have already seen 834 unique individuals, reported 199 overdose reversals and connected ten people to addiction treatment,” said Rachel Thornley, executive director. of the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective. “Not only is the need for these services high, but it continues to grow rapidly every year.”
The organization provides sterile equipment, hygiene products and supplies, HIV and other tests – as well as links to addiction treatment and community resources.
“Having Danielle (and former VISTA interns) on our side has helped us reach groups and individuals that we probably wouldn’t normally reach,” Thornley said. “The WFU AmeriCorps partnership has also allowed us to provide additional community services. Our quarterly neighborhood cleanups are entirely organized and managed by Danielle.
For Jefferson, being able to serve in the Wake Forest Public Health AmeriCorps program also gave him a new perspective to see others. Her father died of a drug overdose when she was younger – and she realizes how important public health plays a role in people’s lives.
“I feel like I’m serving a larger purpose. I didn’t necessarily know much about my dad’s drug use. So being able to stand up for people who are going through that, I think that’s also a greater vocation. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity.
As for what’s next for Causby, Almonte and Jefferson after Public Health AmeriCorps, they all say the program has given them the tools and skills they need to succeed in their next career steps.
Causby graduated in December and was accepted to medical school for the fall. He wants to become a doctor and return to his roots in rural western North Carolina to help fill the health care access gaps these communities face.
Almonte smiles as he talks about his role in bringing about Pro Humanitate, the University’s motto. The program gives her the confidence to achieve her career goals – and she is inspired by the selfless work and dedication of local public health leaders to improve their communities. This summer, she will move into a new role assisting customers in Crisis Control’s on-site pharmacy.
Jefferson sees how public health is linked to stronger communities and the impact it has on people’s lives. After graduating from Wake Forest with a degree in health and exercise science in May, she plans to continue her studies in a master’s program in public health.