VCU Community Engagement News

Center for Community Engagement and Impact

The center’s three interns have risen to the challenge of working through a global pandemic.

By Jenny Pedraza

This Spring semester, the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Hub at 25th is home base to three VCU interns. Two undergraduate students and one graduate student have been working on projects ranging from the center’s outreach efforts and setting up the framework for community advisory council work to investigating what it means to have cultural humility and gathering community recipes to add to the center’s art walls.

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 2019 and offers educational and wellness programs, health screenings, care coordination and support, community events and fitness activities.

After a productive start to the semester, the interns – Cecilia Kudiabor, ’20; and Grace Topham, ’20, both seniors majoring in health, physical education and exercise science; and Erica Gomez, a master of social work student – were looking forward to spring break.

Natalie Pennywell, director of the health hub, however, was carefully watching the COVID-19 crisis unfold and was in constant communication with VCU administration. 

“Because we are a community-based facility, we needed to make the timely, but difficult decision to close the center,” Pennywell said, referring to the decision to close the health hub before the university announced full closure. “We have so many staff members, third party partners and community members from vulnerable populations coming through the health hub every day, and we needed to make sure we were not contributing to the spread of the virus.”

But what would that mean for the health hub’s interns? For Pennywell, there was never a question. She knew they’d “keep right on rolling.”

“We do so much planning and goal setting at the start of the internship, asking each student about what kind of impact he or she wants to have at the center,” Pennywell said. “So it was just a matter of facilitating with them and asking them, ‘what goals can we accomplish remotely? What are some new approaches to your work?’ Just because we can’t do this face-to-face doesn’t mean you can’t still have a great experience – and provide critical help.”

Gomez continued her work creating infrastructure pieces to help guide and support future community advisory council work, something that easily transitioned to remote work via phone calls, virtual meetings and document editing. After this internship, Gomez will enter her clinical placement for the social work program. She told Pennywell that even finishing her health hub experience remotely has given her a new perspective on working within the community.

Kudiabor’s work on outreach became even more imperative in helping partner program leads think about ways to communicate with community neighbors via social media or hold virtual programs. Now, upwards of 50 of the health hub’s community partners will utilize Kudiabor’s plans for remote outreach as programming at the health hub goes digital.

One of Topham’s goals was to collect more recipes from community neighbors to be displayed on the center’s reception area art wall of dinner plates. The plates were procured from local second hand stores, and each setting holds a recipe, representing community, health and shared life experiences. Pivoting this project to work remotely, Topham connected with a contact from a previous internship to potentially reach out to residents at the Dominion Place, an apartment building in the city. Many Dominion Place residents already make use of health hub programs and services, and Topham thought she could speak with them over the phone to ask them to participate in the dinner plate project.

Dominion Place asked for her help in return. Topham’s calls to talk about favorite recipes also served an important purpose – to check in with a vulnerable population during a pandemic. Over the course of a week, she made over 80 phone calls, checking in with people to make sure they are staying home, making sure they have their medications and enough food and just generally making sure they are OK.

“There is just so much fear among the residents,” Topham said. “They are so scared they could get sick. It has been really important to check in – some were already isolated and now it’s so much worse. I’m just a friendly voice letting them know they’re safe and connecting them to help if they need it.”

Pennywell said the experience of interning through a pandemic – and rising to the challenge of adapting and continuing to move forward – will be one that stays with these students. And while she knows that this experiential learning opportunity was impactful for them, she acknowledges that the health hub needed them just as much.

The center has hosted interns since before it opened to the public, and Pennywell has always been intentional about giving students a “seat at the table” and a way to put their own personal stamp on the center for years to come.

“It’s on purpose that students are an integral part of the fabric of the health hub,” Pennywell said. “Both to deepen their learning and so our community neighbors really get to see the power they hold in a student’s experience. Because our neighbors have interacted with them on this level, they are helping to create the very best practitioners of tomorrow.”

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

Categories VCU Health Hub at 25th