Penn Nursing’s Community Champions Engage to Improve Health

From outside the Sayre Recreation Center at 58th and Walnut streets, the only indication of something happening on a chilly December Tuesday is a dozen or so parked cars. Otherwise, the massive fenced-in lot is quiet.

Inside the gymnasium, a crowd has formed at check-in. With pump-up music booming in the background, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing students weigh participants, measure their heights and resting heart rates and provide them with pedometers. Community members of all ages have come to Sayre High School for Dance for Health, a free fitness class put on by Penn’s School of Nursing as a way to actively engage community in its health outcomes. 

Dance for Health is one of 11 initiatives in the Community Champions Program, which Terri Lipman, Nursing’s assistant dean for community engagement, started two years ago. Sophie Mintz and Chantal Low, both Penn seniors, are Community Champions’ student leaders.

“A major aspect of our program is to develop initiatives that are culturally relevant and fun but also impact the community,” says Low, originally from New York City. That’s the atmosphere at this final Dance for Health class before a short holiday hiatus and at all of the programs offered by the Community Champions.

Lipman, the Miriam Stirl Endowed Term Professor of Nutrition, began the Community Champions program when she realized that Penn Nursing undergraduates, already committed to the community, wanted more engagement opportunities. In a short time the program grew from 20 students to more than 50, coordinating initiatives that range from the dance-fitness project to a health-education partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia.

There are diabetes awareness and asthma outreach programs at University-assisted middle schools that, in collaboration with Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, teach children prevention methods plus tools to manage the conditions and potential complications. One of the most popular programs, The Fruit Stand, is a joint effort with Netter’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative that demonstrates to elementary-age children how to eat well and manage a business by selling fruit.

“We’re teaching them not only about healthy eating but also about developing business acumen: how to think on their feet and how to sell,” Low says. “It makes it more engaging and tangible.” Plus, it helps the Penn undergraduates improve their information-relaying skills, particularly in regard to nutrition and health literacy.

“The kids really love this program,” Low adds. “They learn nutrition, they sell fruit and they impact their community. It’s really fun.”

Community Champions also engages with older community members, including a chair-dancing program created by the nursing students at the LIFE (Living Independently for Elders) Center. LIFE is not a nursing home but rather provides health care services and socialization to allow older individuals to live in their homes as long as possible.  

“Nursing students who had their clinical rotations at the LIFE Center knew there was interest in increasing activity,” Lipman says. “So they integrated the idea of Dance for Health and developed a program specifically for elders that incorporated music and movement while the elders, many of whom had mobility issues, were seated.”

For many of the Community Champions initiatives, the leaders currently have only anecdotal proof of their success, stemming from the program’s relative youth, but also a lack of clarity about what data might prove most useful. Obtaining outcome evidence is a goal Low and Mintz passionately discuss. 

“Community Champions is still fairly new,” says Mintz, who is also from New York City. “As it continues, we will gain a better sense of exactly what we want to measure. As a general goal, we want our interventions to be successful and sustainable and to positively impact the community. We also want to positively influence the Community Champions, who we expect will become better nurses from the engagement skills they’re learning.”

Many of the programs, she adds, already have a built-in data-gathering aspect.

“For example, the Dance for Health program involves evaluating whether dancing decreases obesity and improves fitness,” she says. “The Asthma Outreach Reduction program involves collecting data about the health literacy and understanding of asthma before and after the program, for example, mechanisms of the disease, triggers and exposure, and analyzing and evaluating the interventions.”

Several nursing students, including Leah Quinn, the Community Champions recruitment chair, are studying the outcome measures of the programs as part of their senior research projects. For many, it is the first opportunity to see skills they learn in the classroom play out in real life.

“Often people don’t think of community engagement as being research-oriented,” Low says. Before becoming the program co-director, she held those same beliefs that analyzing outcomes in a college setting made sense but that community engagement was about connecting with people, not necessarily paying attention to data.

The engagement aspect remains crucial, but there is also now a push for those numbers, to allow Community Champions to continue to improve and grow. “We have a focus on research and data collection,” she says, and the duo, with guidance from Lipman and other faculty, is working hard on tools to measure outcomes.

Back at the Sayre High School gym, participants dance, following steps taught by Selena Williams, an instructor who runs a Philadelphia studio called In the Dance. Halfway through the event, Mintz, Lipman and Penn sophomore Hannah Kasper, Community Champions leader of Dance for Health, obtain heart rates from the participants to evaluate whether the dancing has provided adequate exertion.

West Philadelphia resident Tameko Patten has attended the program at Sayre almost every week for two years. “I was always the one at parties and weddings watching everybody dance and have fun,” she says. “When I started, I had three left feet. Now I can look good on the floor.” She has seen health benefits too, with her weight and the way she feels.

Before she heads back to the makeshift dance floor, Patten says, “As long as they keep dancing, I’ll be here.”

It’s that type of connection that Lipman says she hoped to foster through Community Champions and that Low and Mintz believe is possible because they and their peers are out in the community each week in plain clothes, which removes a built-in barrier.

“When we’re not wearing scrubs, or when we’re not in the ‘role’ of nurses in a hospital, it gives us that added incentive to really put ourselves out there and make it known that we want to help,” Mintz says.

Adds Low, “Scrubs are for the hospital. It’s a uniform. A nurse doesn’t need to wear scrubs to make a statement or a difference. Nursing is not about what you wear but about what you do.”

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