‘How Can I Make an Impact?’

Monday, May 2, 2016

Spirit of service drives 25 years of community engagement

By Mark Donahue

Community service is nothing new to Maura Waldron, MSN.

“In my family it was always expected that you would volunteer your time and your efforts to give back to the community,” says Waldron, a nurse in Rush University Medical Center’s general medicine unit.

While earning her master’s degree from the Rush University College of Nursing’s Generalist Entry Master’s program, which she received in 2015, Waldron volunteered at Richard T. Crane Medical Preparatory High School, just a few blocks from Rush University Medical Center. She and her fellow students tapped Crane students to become “peer health ambassadors,” who learned more about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise in weekly meetings to spread the word to their peers.

Other schoolwide health events included a 5K run, a food drive and a seminar about healthy eating.

Waldron is but one of the thousands of Rush students, resident physicians and faculty who volunteer each year in the area surrounding Rush’s Near West Side campus. They are all part of the Rush Community Service Initiatives Program (RCSIP), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month.

From its beginnings in community health clinics, RCSIP has blossomed into a full-service volunteer effort offering myriad ways to help local residents. Homeless individuals get physicals at RCSIP clinics. Children with HIV go on trips to museums. Like Waldron, many Rush students mentor high school students interested in health care careers — and these are just a few of the programs.

“This really is who we are at Rush” says Sharon Gates, MA, senior director of community engagement at Rush. “Our students want to know, ‘How can I make an impact on the community with the talent I possess?’”

Rush University students are required to complete a certain number of service hours to graduate, depending on their program, with the exception of the Graduate College.

But volunteer work is more than a requirement. In a survey completed in 2014, 66 percent of all Rush students surveyed said knowledge of community engagement opportunities influenced their decision to study there, with that tally rising to 82 percent for Rush Medical College students.

There’s more proof in the numbers. In 2015, more than 2,300 students volunteered more than 9,000 hours supervised by Rush faculty, clinicians and staff.

Waldron believes community service opportunities give Rush students a chance to not only make an impact on the lives of others, but also to sharpen their focus as they consider future careers.“I think that going into different areas and having experiences with different peoples in different settings allows students to realize what we are actually interested in,” she says.

Building better projects

In the past few years, RCSIP improved the process for helping bring new service ideas to life. Rush is making smarter decisions to create lasting community efforts and to build on its reputation for service. For example, the Crane health ambassadors club was developed through an in-house funding grant program that helps launch student-led service projects at established RCSIP sites.

The process for applying for these grants has been greatly improved, leading to more focused projects, said Gates. Proposals must now align with one or more priorities in Rush’s Community Health Needs Assessment and include at least one of these areas of focus: accessible patient care, education resources for disease management and prevention, health science career education, community-based research, and community partnership building.

Projects must have clear goals, a faculty mentor and must account for future student participation, as well.

Proposed student service projects must also cut across the colleges of the University, Gates says. At Crane, Waldron and others from the College of Nursing joined students from two programs in the College of Health Sciences to launch the health ambassadors club.

While RCSIP remains the official Rush vehicle for community service, students may also work through outside channels, whether in their own community or through opportunities such as the Schweitzer Fellowship.

For Waldron and students like her, community engagement is becoming one of the pillars their health care future will rest on.

“I think it’s impossible not to be involved in community health,” she said. “It’s going to be part of your job no matter what.”