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The Calvin College nursing department has been listening to their neighbors in Grand Rapids, Mich., for years. Faculty and students have worked alongside leaders from a few communities to provide education and health-related nursing services for an array of public health issues. In recent years, a new concern was voiced: mental health. And faculty took notice.

Listening First

In 2010, Calvin College nursing professors Mary Molewyk Doornbos and Gail Zandee began asking questions and holding focus groups in three impoverished, underserved neighborhoods in Grand Rapids: the area around Baxter and Madison Avenues, Burton Heights, and the Creston and Belknap neighborhood. It didn’t take long to see distinct trends of depression and anxiety disproportionately affecting urban, ethnically diverse women living in poverty.

It was clear that the women desired education and support around these issues and that Calvin College nursing students could meet a need. Doornbos and her colleagues created a curriculum entailing all of the things the women wanted to learn. With the help of students, they began to teach.

“Nursing at Calvin is not ‘Can I use people to practice my teaching/skills?’” said Doornbos. It’s ‘This is what our neighbors want and have asked for,’ and that changes the whole dynamic. We believe that our neighbors can identify both their concerns and the potential solutions.”

Taking Action

In fall 2011, a five-year pilot study: “Women Supporting Women: Supportive/Educative Groups for Ethnically Diverse, Urban, Impoverished Women Dealing with Depression and Anxiety” was launched in all three neighborhoods.

The program included six sessions, each 90 minutes in length, spanning four months each semester. The goal? To see an increase in the mental health self-care of participants.

“One of the barriers for these women was they didn’t have any medical coverage [for] a counselor or a therapist, and they needed to see someone for therapy; they were high risk, some suicidal,” said Veronica Quintino, a community health worker who is working with Calvin in the Burton Heights neighborhood.

“I saw the change [in these women] within weeks of them being in the program, saw how the depression was getting better, how they were taking the tools and applying them.”

Shattering Stereotypes

While Quintino speaks highly of the program now, she wasn’t always an ardent supporter. When she first heard of Women Supporting Women, she was working as a social worker at Cherry Street Health Services. One of her clients struggling with mental health issues was having a hard time getting the help she needed.

Quintino didn’t know much about the Calvin program, and said she had some preconceived notions about the college. But she was desperate to find help for her client. So she went with her to a meeting in Burton Heights. It didn’t take long for her to go from skeptic to advocate.

“Working with them and seeing them really implement the mission and vision . . . has taught me . . . that Calvin does care about the community, and [they] do teach students to be culturally competent,” said Quintino. “They practice their faith and value every individual as somebody who is a son and daughter of God. That’s one of the biggest learnings.”

Quintino said that despite her skepticism, she connected her client with the program because her client needed the help. “Bu I learned so much, and that’s why I keep coming back,” she added about her own journey.

And it’s why a couple of years ago she recruited Miss Josie, another community health worker in Burton Heights, who spent nearly 40 years serving in many roles as a community liaison for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“I’ve never seen a college like Calvin College,” said Miss Josie. “It’s just like I’m in church, if not better. I’ve never felt so much love and so much interest. Everyone is important to them. I’ve never felt that.”

Making an Impact

A year after the first pilot study was completed, the results are in. The program has been deemed a resounding success. Using pre-testing and post-testing data, organizers found participants experienced a significant increase in knowledge for self-care for depression and anxiety and a significant decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms. And the women were highly satisfied with the intervention.

In fact, they were so satisfied that some have asked to go through the program again, and many have become ambassadors for the program in their communities.

Enhancing the Program

The program has been a partnership every step of the way. Community health workers serve as facilitators, while Calvin College nursing students do much of the teaching under the supervision of Calvin faculty.

In the past year, Women Supporting Women has stepped up this idea of partnership and has taken a more interdisciplinary approach, incorporating an art project into the program.

Morgan Quist, a nursing major and studio art minor, facilitated the art project  alongside art professor Anna Greidanus in the Baxter/Madison neighborhood. Together they have helped the women who participate in the program create a book that maps their mental health journey.

“We’re trying to reinforce what the nursing students teach them about depression, anxiety, the need to take breaks, take time for themselves, that creativity is individualized and that what they make is valuable. We’re trying to tell them these messages through the art,” said Quist.

“Sometimes they can’t say it, but they can write it down, how they are feeling. It’s helped them a lot,” said Miss Josie.

“As you are doing the artwork you are able to express your ideas and feelings, and at the end you feel a sense of completion, accomplishment,” said Quintino.

Combining Art and Science

Quist is seeing how her passion for art and science are working together in meaningful ways. 

“People always say science and art are so different, but to me they always seem to overlap in really unique ways,” said Quist. “My chemistry lab is so similar to the ceramics studio. Whether I’m working with glazed formulas or science experiments, there’s similar creativity in both, just manifested in different ways.

“And, in nursing, you have to individualize your care, but there’s also this scientific, research-based care—it’s the melding metaphorically of art and science. And this [project] is very tangible art—looking at the person holistically and promoting self-esteem and empowering them. I feel creativity is a way to do that.”

Providing a Model

Now that the pilot study is complete, the program will be repeated for five more years with the immediate goal of verifying and validating the pilot’s success. If the results are consistent, organizers say this could serve as a model to be used in other urban settings with other schools of nursing.

“I think this is Calvin’s mission coming alive,” said Doornbos. “I don’t think that it gets better than this in terms of students taking what they are taught in nursing, in the Honduras semester [Spanish language skills used in the Burton Heights group), and in art classes, and using it to meet real needs of real people. They learn the reality of the research process, what cultural sensitivity entails, what vulnerability looks like, and how to pursue justice as an agent of renewal in the kingdom of God.”



Collaborating with Neighbors

Calvin College places a high value on community-based learning and has developed partnerships with its Grand Rapids, Mich., neighbors. The college takes a collaborative approach to such partnerships, recognizing the importance of listening first in order to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of any given community.

The following are a few of the areas in which Calvin College faculty, staff and students have developed deep partnerships in Grand Rapids:

Plaster Creek Stewards

Faculty, staff and students from multiple disciplines are collaborating with churches, schools, and community partners to restore the health and beauty of Plaster Creek, one of the most polluted urban waterways in the state. In 2016, the group received two grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality totaling $800,000. Since 2011, the group has generated nearly $3 million in grants focused on providing education, research, and restoration opportunities at various sites within the watershed.

Community Nursing

Students working under the supervision of nursing faculty and staff are gaining hands-on clinical experience in one of four urban, culturally diverse neighborhoods. For years, the nursing department has been learning about each community’s distinct health care strengths and needs and partnering with them to improve community health. One of the more recent initiatives resulting from this partnership is the H.E.A.L.T.H. Camp—a free camp for girls ages 9 to 15. With more than 10 Calvin departments involved, the interprofessional and interdisciplinary camp educates girls about their bodies and promotes a culture of health.

Residence Hall Community Partnerships (RHCP)

Each of Calvin’s seven residence halls has built a lasting relationship with a local organization. For more than two decades, students have served weekly alongside their Grand Rapids neighbors—everything from tutoring elementary school children to providing weekend activities for mentally impaired adolescents and adults to providing childcare services to impoverished families. Earlier this year, the RHCP program was awarded the Best Practices Award at the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Students Values Conference.

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