An Unexpected Mentor

           1. an experienced and trusted adviser.

In National Health Corps, our supervisors are also mentors. Their role is to serve as our adviser;  encouraging growth, modeling professionalism, and encouraging a commitment to service and the community. The mentor-mentee relationship is strongly supported through consistent trainings, resources and check-ins. This is unique to National Health Corps and something that drew me to the program. What I didn’t expect, are the mentors I have found in the volunteers at my host site.

At South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM), many of our programs are sustained through the commitment of volunteers. I am lucky to have the opportunity to interact with a large portion of these volunteers through my role with the food pantry; approximately 120 people volunteer regularly with our food pantry in one capacity or another. Many of these volunteers have retired from their careers and have chosen to spend their time giving back to the community. In their time with us, they restock food and personal items in the pantry, assist families shopping through the pantry, transport donated food items and complete a plethora of other tasks. In my few months at SHIM, I have already found so many incredible friends and mentors in these volunteers.

Will is a volunteer I met in my first weeks at SHIM, who shares a strong interest in public health and commitment to service. He is a volunteer and previous board member here at SHIM, with his involvement in the organization totaling over 10 years. I learned early on about Will’s public health career and his engagement in the community when I ran into him volunteering at Global Links.

Throughout the past few months, Will has provided guidance regarding other organizations where I could volunteer, suggestions for relevant books to read and general advice for a future career in public health. I was interested in learning more about Will and sharing through this blog the many ways which NHC presents opportunities to network, find mentors and others dedicated to the community! Below are Will’s answers to a few of my questions that I asked him in an effort to get to know him better and capture his public health experiences and advice:

1. What motivated you to work in public health?

I was in Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh for testing and then surgery when I was 12. In my 6 weeks or so in the hospital and then afterwards with regular checkups by a team of doctors, I became aware of the number of children who are affected by serious health problems. It struck me as sad, and was a powerful experience when I saw that so many kids had a wide variety of scary health problems. When I was a senior in high school, I then volunteered at Children’s, visiting kids and playing games with them. Health, or the lack of it, became an interest of mine but I did not pursue it as an undergraduate as I thought the only way to have a health career was to be a nurse, doctor or technologist. These were not careers that interested me. I was attracted to public health while in a different graduate program at Pitt. It was really a financially driven decision, as I learned of the possibility of getting an MPH with half of the tuition paid. Since I did not have much money, I applied to Pitt’s School of Public Health.  I was accepted into the Maternal and Child Health Administration program.  [Coincidently, after I graduated my first job was as a pilot project manager for Children’s Hospital reviewing and writing journal articles, and looking to answer the question of whether early and frequent middle ear infections caused long term learning or hearing problems].

2. What types of work have you done in public health?

  • The research position at Children’s Hospital
  • Health educator at the University of Maryland Baltimore County
  • Member of a task force work in Baltimore County to decrease teenage pregnancy
  • Member of the American Cancer Society, and led campus Great American Smokeout event yearly. [The Great American Smokeout is an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society. It is held on the third Thursday of November. This social engineering event focuses on encouraging Americans to quit tobacco smoking].
  • While working for Integrated Therapeutics Group, along with HMO and health plan doctors and staff, I designed and implemented asthma disease management programs. I also helped design and manage a study on cardiovascular disease interventions in a local health plan.

3. What is one of the biggest challenges faced in public health?

Creating and having success with broad based disease management or population health efforts is very challenging. Among the things that need to be considered or that can prevent a successful intervention are:

What approach will be taken to best address the disease in a population? Do you choose prevention or disease intervention or both? If you decide to take an approach that educates all patients in a health system that have a specific disease such as asthma, how do you find people with asthma in the health data of the HMO? What ICD9 or other codes in their medical records indicate this disease? How good is the data (is it complete and how current)? Does it capture hospital visits or if out of system, how do we find that data? If it is provided as de-identified information to protect patient confidentiality, can it be matched across data sources so we know patient 123 is indeed the same as patient 123 in other data? How do you contact folks you believe have asthma without them being suspicious of or concerned about how you know they have the disease? Does educating everyone with asthma have the same cost and care improvement effect as concentrating on the people who are frequent users of medical care - who have many asthma flare-ups?  If you do decide to concentrate on those with many asthma exacerbations and doctor/ER visits, are you reaching the patient when they are already starting to get better? [We found that once we identified folks with frequent ER and hospital visits they often had begun a cycle of better control of their asthma, while other not-identified folks became the high users of medical care due to uncontrolled asthma]. What are the best measures to track to prove your interventions are making a difference and that it’s not other factors for which you haven’t controlled? Who funds and who benefits from the population health measures?

4. What is your advice to young professionals in the public health field?

Try to visualize what you want to be doing in 10-20 years in public health. Is the program you enter too limiting, or with it be global enough that your MPH will allow you to do many types of work in the field? Take on interesting projects and internships or jobs while in graduate school. Say yes to as many things as possible.

5.  How does a program like NHC benefit the organization and/or community?

I do believe that the NHC program benefits you (the Americorps volunteer), the community and SHIM. Your work will benefit SHIM’s work, perhaps lead them in new directions to interact and educate clients, and provide insights into areas they might want to research more/analyze their internal data, or start specific programs.

6.  How long have you been volunteering at SHIM?

I believe that I have been volunteering at SHIM since 2008, perhaps before then. But for sure I had time after losing my full time job at a health management company in 2008. I wanted to help folks and knew of SHIM though my church so I started there doing administrative stuff and entering donors in the donor database, writing letters for the director, and then helping in their pantry. Eventually I was asked to join the board of directors and served for 6 years.

7. What volunteer roles have you served in at SHIM?

I have done these jobs as a volunteer: driver for food collection and of clients and youth; a pantry volunteering stocking and on pantry days; a volunteer at community events, and at the client annual dinner; with the homework help group in Baldwin; working with clients on the Dollar Energy program and also helping certify families to use our services each year; as a volunteer with the WorkAble program, and on various Board committees after I ended my time on the Board. My favorite memories are while I am volunteering in client-facing roles.

8. What other organizations do you volunteer with?

I volunteer regularly with Circles East Liberty, Open Hand Ministries, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and SHIM. I am on the Board of Schenley Heights for Youth, a faith based after-school and summer program connected with Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. More infrequently I volunteer with Garfield Community Farm, Global Links, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, projects in Homewood and the Homewood Campaign, The Bair Foundation, City Mission, and Rise Against Hunger. All of these organizations have the ability to help people affected by poverty or fill a gap in services to folks living in communities that are under-resourced.

This post was written by NPHC member Kyla Tucker.

Kyla serves at South Hills Interfaith Movement as a Health Educator.