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Every year approximately 30 graduate students are chosen by Health & Medicine Policy Research Group’s Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program to serve as Schweitzer Fellows. The students, all of whom are aspiring to become health and human services professionals, then design and implement projects—which are hosted by a variety of community-based agencies throughout the Chicago metropolitan area—designed to improve the health of local communities. Through the Program, Fellows not only gain skills to develop and implement community-based health initiatives (filling a gap in health professions training) but are also instilled with the importance of community service.
The Chicago Area program was founded in 1996, and just two years later VNA Foundation awarded the Program a grant. That grant was in support of Schweitzer Fellows who were post-baccalaureate nursing students, and VNA has proudly continued supporting Nursing Fellows for many years since.
In addition to a year of work experience, skill-building, and giving back to local communities, alumni of the program become Fellows for Life and can benefit from ongoing professional development and service opportunities. Periodically, Fellows for Life are even offered seed grants to sustain or grow their community projects.
Elizabeth Rios, APRN, is a Fellow for Life who through her Schweitzer Fellowship in 2019-2020 helped launch the Cultivating Health Ministries Project in McHenry County. As a Schweitzer Fellow, Elizabeth connected with the McHenry County Department of Public Health, The Harvard Community Senior Center, and other community partners to focus on the high rates of diabetes among community members living in and near the city of Harvard, Illinois—many of whom identify as Latinx, older adults, and/or are un-insured or underinsured.
Outreach for the Cultivating Health Ministries Project took place at local churches and other congregations. At first, residents were hesitant due to fears and skepticism about the health care system in general and because Elizabeth was a stranger. However, Elizabeth continued to show up, meet people where they were, and listen to them. Residents began to trust her and now more than 600 receive services each year.
Elizabeth now serves as the Project Director, and she and her team (which includes a Medical Director, nurses, and community health workers) offer physical and mental health screenings, health education, direct services, and regular follow-up at the same congregations where initial outreach occurred. Every interaction with participants includes teachable moments to help them better understand and manage their diabetes and related issues like hypertension. The interactions also teach providers what participants and the larger community need.
In 2021, Elizabeth received a Fellows for Life Seed Grant for the project to purchase blood pressure machines. Participants learned how to use the machines at home to monitor their blood pressure, and more than 80% reduced their levels during the grant period.
Today, Elizabeth is finishing her PhD in nursing and is excited about what’s to come—including the publication of a paper* about successes and lessons learned through the Cultivating Health Ministries Project. The paper will include tips for those hoping to replicate this collaborative and place-based health model in their own communities.
Elizabeth believes that becoming a Schweitzer Fellow was “was one of the best things to happen to [her]” and notes the Program can be a fit for those studying in a variety of fields and at many different places in their studies and lives. If you have questions about the Schweitzer Fellowship, you can read more here, or contact Karol Dean, Schweitzer Fellowship Director or Mia Hayford, Schweitzer Fellows Program Coordinator. The application deadline for the 2023-2024 cohort is February 1, 2023!
*The paper is funded as part of a three-year grant from the Community Foundation for McHenry County.