How can parents learn strategies for supporting their children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Where can people newly diagnosed with diabetes get information on how to control their condition? Where can individuals find out the risk factors for heart disease? While traditional health care settings strive to address vital health education and promotion issues, they don’t reach all people.
Community-based programs offer invaluable health and wellness information outside of traditional health care settings. They tackle everything from asthma management to healthy aging. Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work faculty member Nicole (Nicki) Lynn Lee, Ph.D., has extensive experience in community health education initiatives. For years she’s empowered individuals to improve their own wellness.
VCU Health Hub at 25th
As the Master of Social Work Program director and an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work, Dr. Lee has taught for over a decade. Her research history includes examining the impact of intimate partner violence in communities of color.
Her work at the VCU Health Hub at 25th nurtures an important passion of hers — community-based health education. It’s a center that delivers free health education and wellness activities to the community, such as nutrition counseling, health screenings and fitness programs.
Faculty members and staff from VCU and students from VCU and VCU Health, alongside community partners, such as the Richmond City Health District, help residents connect to local health care services. They deliver education programs on:
- Chronic disease prevention
- Behavioral health
- Wellness and community growth
The center, located in Richmond’s East End, aims to give community members a place to connect with their neighbors and support one another as they develop healthy habits together. It draws on assets from the VCU Health System to address specific health issues and needs that East End community members identified as important to them.
This community engagement in action inspires Dr. Lee, who describes it as one of the most rewarding aspects of her work. Dr. Lee also relishes the opportunities that the center gives her social work students. In her role as field instructor, she supervises students who are either leading or participating in many of the initiatives the Health Hub offers.
The model brings together resources from across the VCU community. By partnering with several schools within the university, the center can offer a broad collection of services, from occupational therapy to vision screening. Simultaneously, it gives students the chance to put their skills to work in a community-focused agency.
Tackling Social Determinants of Health
Social determinants of health — the conditions in which people work, live, and go to school that influence their overall health — factored into the establishment of the VCU Health Hub at 25th. Historically, the area has faced many challenges as a low-income community. Housing quality, employment, access to health care and insurance coverage, and food insecurity have caused the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other poor health outcomes to surge.
Numerous studies link social disadvantage to disability, disease and death. The VCU Health Hub at 25th opened its doors with this in mind. Through preventive and support services, as well as health education and promotion, it tackles contributing factors, such as poor health literacy, that harm community wellness.
Community-Based Health Programs
Proponents of community-based health programs recognize the value of getting health information to individuals before they reach the hospital or emergency department. By the time people have arrived in a clinical environment, they usually have health conditions at more advanced stages. Educating communities can prevent these poor health outcomes.
The VCU Health Hub at 25th offers various community-based health programs, including the following:
Disease Prevention Education
Disease prevention education can empower people to make choices that keep them from getting sick. Information about how conditions such as obesity, and behaviors such as smoking, increase the risk for disease gives people the tools to make healthy lifestyle changes.
One of the many disease-prevention initiatives at the VCU Health Hub at 25th addresses cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.
One in three adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those with high blood pressure, 20 percent aren’t aware of their condition, a rather concerning fact considering hypertension is a leading risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
A VCU student participated in a Health Hub initiative that made blood pressure cuffs available to the public through a loaner program, made possible by a partnership with the American Heart Association. This program allowed community members with elevated blood pressure, or those at risk, to monitor themselves at home. A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that such self-monitoring improves hypertension.
The program also raises heart disease awareness by educating people about risk factors for heart disease and ways to reduce them.
Another community health education initiative that Dr. Lee has supervised student participation in supports healthy eating choices. A community-focused grocery store located near the center, the VCU Health Hub at 25th helps people bridge the gap between simply understanding the need to improve nutrition and gaining the skills to make healthy nutrition changes.
Through hands-on learning activities, participants in the program learn strategies for selecting and preparing healthy food on a budget. They also learn about food labels, healthy portions and meal planning. To promote an inclusive program, The Market at 25th offers a 50 percent discount on fresh fruits and vegetables to food stamp and Electronic Benefits Transfer customers.
Behavioral and Mental Health Education and Support
The more people understand mental health issues, the greater their chance of seeking help for themselves and their loved ones.
In addition to her other work with the program, Dr. Lee involved social work students in a collaborative art project. Alongside art therapy, the program has offered classes on trauma and resilience. The center has also joined forces with Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now): a program that helps participants understand trauma’s effects on the brain and behavior and trains them to respond to individuals who experience trauma.
Health Education and Promotion Events and Activities
Health education and promotion events and activities also play a meaningful role in building resilient communities.
Most recently, a VCU student took part in the center’s free eyeglass program, set up to help those with vision problems get eyeglasses despite financial barriers. Dr. Lee, who supervised the student’s participation, noted that this program has proven particularly effective with community members. The center also has vision and hearing screenings for children. In addition to helping organize health screenings, Lee has helped coordinate on-site medical assessments by nurse practitioners and doctors.
Other past and current health-focused events and activities at the center include the following:
- Fitness and exercise classes
- Tobacco and nicotine cessation classes
- Q&A sessions about COVID-19 vaccines for teens
- Panel discussions about Alzheimer’s disease caregiving
- Educational sessions about brain health
Get to Know the Faculty of the VCU School of Social Work
The VCU School of Social Work ranks in the top 25 schools for social work, according to U.S. News & World Report. Its faculty engage students in hands-on learning experiences that prepare them to promote public health and become informed, empathic social work practitioners.
Learn more about Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online M.S.W. Program and how faculty train social workers to lead in health education and promotion.