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2007-08 Chicago Schweitzer Fellow Tanya Melich-Munyan and one of her clients.

2007-08 Chicago Schweitzer Fellow Tanya Melich-Munyan and one of her clients.

Every Tuesday, Beyond Boulders runs a five-question interview with either a first-year Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).

In our sixth installment, we talk with 2007-08 Chicago Fellow Tanya Melich-Munyan, BSN/RN, now a Community/Public Health Supervisor at Rush University College of Nursing. As a Fellow, Melich-Munyan worked with the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind Child Development Center to implement a Wellness Policy; as a Fellow for Life, she remains committed to both the Center and the Schweitzer Fellowship. 

Why did you develop your particular project?

Supporting tenets of Healthy People (HP) 2010 and draft HP 2020 include elimination of health disparities for developmentally and/or physically disabled individuals. The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind Child Development Center (CDC) provides education to youth, aged 6-22, with multiple disabilities including physical, severe/profound developmental, and visual impairments.

While this environment provided some stability, many of these students and their families still faced access-to-care issues, primarily preventative, dental, and mental health. Cultural and social barriers related to disability itself are confounded by socio-economic status, ethnicity, and health literacy. Ninetythree percent of students attending the school are members of a racial minority. Many lack the proper documentation to receive Federal assistance for food, housing, or medical services and supplies. Community resources are limited.

Caregivers of children with disabilities also face the challenges of other children, housing, the economy, transportation, and residency status. These factors add to the stress burden placed on a family and may supersede their readiness to participate in a healthier lifestyle.

By creating a sustainable Wellness Program that extended from the school to the home, improving nutrition and physical activity levels, and addressing access to dental and psychological care, I hoped to create a more healthful environment.

What was the lasting impact of your project on the community it served?

Helping individuals to understand themselves and their communities. To reach for answers, and independently problem-solve, empowers them to embark on a life-long quest for health-related knowledge.

I was fortunate enough to return to the CDC after one year of being away. Food choices for snacks, meals, and events continue to improve. Parents are calling and coming in to learn more about healthy eating and exercise for their entire family. This was something that never happened before. They are also asking for and receiving more dental and mental health care for their children.

The science class has planted a small vegetable garden with the hope of creating a salad bar in late summer. The staff teases me about my ‘healthy’ lunches, but the fresh fruit I provide twice a month disappears more rapidly now than the coffee cake. They come to me with grocery store items and are able to discuss the nutritional values on the product label. Along with hotdogs and chicken wings, tofu burgers will be served at the 2009 Special Games.

Interest in accessible health has extended beyond the school to the greater agency. The human resource department and the senior program now put out a quarterly newsletter with Wellness Tips.

Last fall, the agency sponsored an influenza prevention campaign. Working with the Chicago Department of Public Health, we were able to provide vaccines to over100 individuals with various disabilities–many who had never received flu shots before.

There is also talk about exploring funding to create a program that addresses obesity for individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

These are just some of the examples of how my project afforded the CDC and the Chicago Lighthouse ownership of this on-going process.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Many groups of individuals may be construed as underserved or vulnerable when access to timely, appropriate care is considered. As healthcare providers face greater demands on their time, they are forced to do more with less and may fail to address the needs of the most unfortunate who cannot or will not advocate for themselves. 

Increasing care capacity through interaction with individuals like the youth who attend the CDC affords providers insight into the wellness needs of special populations and the unique challenges they face. Developing and sustaining professional, multidisciplinary relationships consistently affords peers and clients greater accessibility and a higher standard of performance. Relationships like these helped me excel during my Schweitzer Fellowship year.

Increasing care capacity leaves little room for judgment; it strives to reduce bias and interpret and report the truth. It affirms that no single aspect of an individual’s wellness beliefs, health-related decisions, or behaviors opens that individual up to judgment.  This tenet aids in sharing the challenges of advocating for a better quality of life. One cannot then help but formulate a practice paradigm that affords health and wellness as a right for all individuals.

What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

As health disparities widen, it is crucial that we work together to promote equity of care. I was pleased, rather than surprised, by the level of proficiency and true devotion of other Fellows. Their extensive experiences with clients in diverse settings presented challenges that were consistently met with culturally sensitivity and competence. I could not ask for a more valuable advocate for underserved populations than the Schweitzer Fellows I have met and worked with. I continue to learn from others as I serve as a mentor and Fellow for Life.

What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how will you carry it with you after your year as a Fellow draws to a close?

People who live a life of service do not usually choose it; it often chooses them first.  Attention to the vague sense of unease, the feeling like you can’t quite get comfortable, keeps those who care moving forward to new projects and embracing new communities.  It’s not easy, but there is need and hope and wonder around every corner just waiting to be found. 

My Fellowship year served to deepen my perspective on our now-“global village.” As I plan new program content, living a life that is meaningful and fulfilling as well as ethical and moral is an important lesson I strive to impart. What is honest and good expands life, where what is wrong adds to our collective human limitations. It is right to examine a population with a critical practiced eye and determine how a difference can be made. It is right to reach out and not just stand by. One of healthcare professionals’ most important responsibilities is to prepare those they teach and care for the significance of healthy, active citizenship in their community and the world.

 Above all, in keeping with Dr. Schweitzer’s philosophies, care must be taken to respect the basic dignity and humanity of all citizens of the world. If nothing else, the mere presence of someone who truly cares will make a difference.  

“There are two ways to live your life.  One as though nothing is a miracle, the other as though everything is a miracle.” — Albert Einstein. There must be something about being named Albert…

Melich-Munyan, surrounded by the children she worked with at the CDC.

Melich-Munyan, surrounded by the children she worked with at the CDC.

ASF’s Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program was founded in 1996.  Since then, it has supported over 350 service projects throughout the city of Chicago and DuPage County, equaling almost 70,000 hours of community service. This year, 33 new Fellows from the area’s top colleges and universities have been selected to join the program’s ranks, each partnering with a local agency and devoting more than 200 hours of service—click here for details on the new Fellows’ projects.