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 this installment, we talk with 2007-08 Chicago Fellow Janna Stansell, MPH — now a Project Assistant for the Chicago Schweitzer Fellows Program and a Policy Analyst for Health and Medicine Policy Research Group (HMPRG).
Stansell is passionate about increasing access to healthcare for underserved populations, fighting the obesity epidemic, and ensuring the health of adolescents. While a Fellow (and a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health), she worked with homeless residents at Chicago Christian Industrial League (CCIL), facilitating exercise and discussion groups focusing on health issues. Her program aimed at bringing the residents of CCIL together in a positive way while increasing their exercise, communication, and critical thinking skills.
Why did you develop your particular project?
I applied for the Schweitzer Fellowship after realizing that the ideals of the program matched my own desires to work with underserved communities. I had recently moved to Chicago from California and was becoming well aware of the many social injustices lived out every day in a big city.
I lived in a transitioning neighborhood, and there were two men who worked near my “L” stop washing windshields for cars coming off the highway. These men were homeless and doing the best they could to earn money. I began talking to the men here and there and asked one of them how he was doing; he said he was hungry.
I bought him some food, but then thought about how my gift of food wouldn’t really do much to change his situation–thus inspiring me to do more. I wanted to use my knowledge and training in public health to actually DO something to address health inequities. I took on the Schweitzer Fellowship to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness in the near west side of Chicago.
My project changed over the course of the year, but started as an after-school program for children coming into a transitional housing shelter with their parents. After trouble recruiting school-aged children and the shelter losing resources to support its family program, I changed my project to work with the adults living there. I developed an exercise program and “current events” discussion group with the adult residents.
The exercise group focused on light aerobics, stretching, and resistance training, giving the residents increased opportunity for fitness and recreation while also increasing their knowledge of activities that can be done with fitness equipment. The discussion groups focused on current news events from the local newspapers, especially articles related to health, and helped improve the communication, interpersonal, and reading skills of the residents.
What was the lasting impact of your project on the community it served?
While my project ultimately didn’t change the life circumstances of the residents at the shelter, I do think I was able to impact the lives of those who participated in my program. I saw firsthand the increased desire of the residents to incorporate physical activity into their lives. Participants were excited to learn ways to exercise that did not require equipment or the gym.
The steady attendance at my group showed me how much the residents trusted my presence at the site. Women who had attended one of the groups began asking me questions about nutrition and other health topics, and sought me out as a health resource. I know I impacted the lives of the participants because they told me so.
On a personal level, I improved my skills in program planning and implementation, communication, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills with diverse groups of people. My Fellowship project also broke many stereotypes I didn’t even realize I had until working with a population experiencing homelessness. Because of my experience, I am a better public health professional now. I have an increased desire to continue work with underserved populations and to work toward social and health justice. The Fellowship impacted me in such a way that I may have improved impact on any communities I come in contact with in the future.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. There are so many pressing health-related issues. The lack of clean and potable water, poverty, an under-resourced education system, the lack of healthcare for all, a built and social environment that encourages unhealthy behaviors–these are all issues that need our attention now.
I am thankful that there are so many dedicated communities and professionals working to improve these issues. As far as a topic that is very timely with the new Obama administration, I would say the health care reform discussion is critically important. It upsets me that single-payer health insurance has been left off the table so much during the health reform discussions.
Since I now work for an organization that Dr. Quentin Young established, I will use his motto that the system has to have “everybody in, and nobody out.” It’s time to provide quality healthcare for all residents of the country. Without this reform, the “sickness” system we currently have will continue to get worse and drain the pockets of the most vulnerable.
What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
I think the most surprising part of my experience was how much I learned from the residents at the transitional housing shelter. I went into the experience knowing I’d learn from them and knowing I probably had some stereotypes that were not true, but I didn’t really realize HOW much I would learn from them.
My stereotypes about why people were homeless and what those people were like were broken. Even though I had been told in my public health classes that the community is the best expert for its problems and to always consider the community’s strengths first, I never fully understood what that meant until conducting my project.
The residents had amazing insight into social problems and they all had great ideas for change. There were many strengths of this community and they taught me so much. I will always be thankful to the residents for being open to my presence there and talking to me openly about their experiences.
What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how have you carried it with you since your initial year as a Fellow drew to a close?
I did not know very much about Albert Schweitzer when I applied for the Fellowship. I had heard during the recruitment session that he had been a man who believed in living a life that matches one’s ideals, and that he had established a hospital in Africa. As a Fellow, we would mention quotes from Schweitzer but we didn’t delve very deeply into his life. We discussed “making our lives our arguments,” and “reverence for life,” but beyond those famous quotes, it took me a while to determine what Schweitzer’s legacy meant to me.
Since becoming the Project Assistant for the Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program, I have learned even more about Schweitzer’s life and thought about how that has impacted me. I am conscious of that fact now that I am making my life and career match my ideals (it was always my plan to do so, but now I can attached a philosophy as to why this is important to me).
I will continue to work toward social and health justice in my career, as I currently work as a Policy Analyst and the Chicago Schweitzer Fellows Project Assistant. I will continue to lead a personal life that respects other life and the environment. I will volunteer when I can. The Schweitzer Fellowship experience deepened my commitment to these values and I will carry that with me for life.
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.