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If you walk in to the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Hub at 25th, one of the first things you see in the reception area is a wall of dinner plates. Blue plates, white plates, multi-colored, old, new, small, large. The display spans an entire wall, and each plate features a favorite recipe.

The plates and recipes represent – and come from – the health hub’s East End community. Residents brought them from their own kitchens, with additional plates coming from area sales and second-hand stores. Each plate holds a recipe from a community member, “because food means community, it means health, it means life,” said Natalie Pennywell, director of the health hub.

Located at the corner of Nine Mile Road and North 25th Street, the VCU Health Hub at 25th is a Richmond East End health education and wellness activity center. The center opened in May and offers health screenings and counseling, community events, fitness activities and educational programs. 

As a partnership between VCU and VCU Health, all programs are free and delivered by VCU faculty, VCU and VCU Health staff and students, as well as community partners. 

“All along the way, this model is about how we can address social determinants of health and health disparities residents on the East End face,” Pennywell said. “We are very intentional in how we operate, everything from the people greeting you at the front desk to the partners who are in here every week, it all comes from this community. We are involving our community members in this work that we know will be so impactful.”

The plate installation is a collaboration by 11 VCU interior design students who participated in the MoB+Storefront studio with Caroline Ogburn this Fall. Not only has it brightened up the center’s lobby area and become a focal point of the walkway leading to The Market @ 25th, but the installation represents the health hub’s connection to the community and partnership with residents in the area to reach their health and wellness goals.

It was also the inspiration behind a class project for a team of undergraduate VCU marketing students. 

This Fall, Katie Gilstrap, assistant professor of marketing in the School of Business is teaching Marketing 310, “Information for Marketing Decisions.” Primarily for juniors and seniors majoring in marketing, the course focuses on the basic steps in market research, including developing research objectives and using, collecting and analyzing various kinds of data.

Gilstrap first came to VCU in 2011 as an adjunct professor. The majority of her career was spent leading marketing efforts in the private sector. Before VCU, she was the chief marketing officer at First Market Bank (now Atlantic Union Bank).

Gilstrap’s time in the private sector allowed her to connect with Heidi Crapol, a veteran leader in the nonprofit and corporate sectors. Crapol was appointed executive director of the VCU Center for Community Engagement and Impact in September after serving as the director of VCU’s Center for Urban Communities, where she co-led the development of the health hub.

Crapol mentioned to Gilstrap that the newly opened health hub might benefit from a team of student marketers looking at ways to promote awareness of the center’s offerings. Gilstrap’s class was already signed up to partner with Target on a capstone project surrounding holiday gifts for children.

“I jumped at the opportunity and quickly re-arranged some of my plans to add this in,” Gilstrap said. “What an incredible chance to bring the world into our classroom, involve them with a mission-driven organization and give them not just a real project, but a real project that has so much impact.”

The 43 students in the class were divided into eight teams. They were charged with learning more about who uses or is interested in using health hub programs and services and how the community receives or wants to receive information about the health hub. Information will also be used in collaboration with The Market @ 25th, an independent, full-service grocery store adjacent to the health hub that features community building programs. 

“They were tasked with gathering data and using that evidence to develop creative recommendations to design a data collection instrument,” Gilstrap said. “We weren’t looking for another online survey. The challenge was to come up with something else because this community feels over-surveyed.”

Using secondary research and a day on-site at the center, students put their newly minted research expertise to work to design value-added data collection tools for the health hub.

As soon as she walked into the center, Sarah Spradlin, ’20, a senior in class, was immediately struck by the beautiful wall of plates.

Spradlin’s team was inspired by the art and recommended hosting a community event, the “Pass the Plate Potluck,” to bring the community together for a shared meal. The event would utilize the center’s large multipurpose space to share a casual, family-style meal. Conversation at the meal would be centered around a plate with questions about the health hub’s programs and services, and diners would respond to the questions using sticky notes on the table.

Her group recommended the health hub hold these dinners two times a year or once a quarter and also invite community leaders to speak or involve local community groups or churches. Community members would then be encouraged to bring one of their plates or recipes to add to the plate wall.

“This was my favorite class at VCU,” Spradlin said. “We spent the semester practicing what we have learned and applying it to real world situations. Learning more about the health hub and the ways VCU is involved in the community made me so proud.” 

Other recommendations from student teams included the development of quick text message-based survey questions using survey-bot technology.

Gilstrap said that pairing real-world experiences in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds gave her students a wide perspective, in addition to portfolio pieces and professional networking experiences.

“No matter where you go to work, the best strategies are grounded in research,” Gilstrap said. “Students aren’t always aware of the ways VCU partners with the community, and this project enabled our students to dig in and have real conversations about what is happening in Richmond. This is what being an active citizen is about. We want our students – and our graduates – to be part of this city’s future.”

Pennywell said that students from across both campuses are welcome to engage with the health hub in a variety of ways. On any given day, it’s normal to see a steady-stream of VCU and VCU Health faculty and students in the center, especially surrounding the health disciplines. Dietetic interns, along with students and faculty from the Richmond Health and Wellness Program, are at the center weekly. But students in all majors can help play a role too.

“We are committed to addressing health disparities in the community while giving students unparalleled access to real-world learning opportunities,” Pennywell said. “And that means that we love opportunities for all kinds of partnerships. When people work together across disciplines to solve complex issues, everyone wins.”

For more information, visit the Health Hub at 25th.

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