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While working as a home health aide for children with developmental disabilities, Tessa Yoder saw the challenges facing this population firsthand.

“I have learned so much from them and their unique perspective on the world—but I have also seen firsthand the health difficulties that accompany their individual conditions,” says The Ohio State University (OSU) School of Allied Medical Professions student. “Their bodies work differently, they learn differently, and they see things differently. But when it comes to their needs and desires, they are no different from anyone else.”

As a member of the very first class of Columbus Schweitzer Fellows, Yoder is spending her Schweitzer Fellowship year creating and implementing a service project that takes all of these observations into account. Partnering with Goodwill Columbus and enlisting the volunteer support of a multidisciplinary team of OSU students, she has launched Happier&HealthierU: a health and wellness program for adults with developmental disabilities that focuses on personal health maintenance, prevention, and participation in wellness activities.

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

I developed my Schweitzer project because I do not want children with developmental disabilities to grow up to be adults who are limited or deprived in any way because of their circumstances.  I am very aware of the health disparities that exist in the lives of adults with development disabilities, and I wanted to design a project that not only addressed these disparities from a health standpoint, but also from a happiness standpoint. This approach has included teaching information that we so often take for granted on what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.

Over the summer, we launched an exercise series called Groovin’ with Goodwill that culminated in a final workout DVD specifically designed to be used by adults with developmental disabilities. With things like exercise videos made by them and for them, it’s about creating opportunities that allow them to exercise in a new and innovative way that is fun for them and gets them going. Part of the purpose of the project is also to help explore the things they really enjoy and to feed into that—because doing so is such an important element of your overall wellness and outlook on life!

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

At an organizational level, it is my hope that my project will empower adults with developmental disabilities to be active participants in their health and happiness as individuals. Oftentimes, decisions regarding their health and general social circumstances are made by someone other than themselves. I hope participants will come away with skills and knowledge that will allow them to make healthy lifestyle choices autonomously, or at least in part. I would love to see them be able to pursue and participate in the things they enjoy and love, whatever that may be. I hold tight to the words of my mentor throughout this Schweitzer project: “If it puts a smile on their face, then it is health and wellness.”

Additionally, I have had the opportunity through my project to connect many different disciplines at OSU with the adults at Goodwill. I hope these connections really raise awareness at a collegiate level of the disparities that exist for adults with disabilities—and what students can do to help address these needs. It is my goal to get a commitment from at least 12 schools to come back on a yearly basis and serve at Goodwill to continue the Happier&HealthierU programming led by student volunteers, so that it is a part of their yearly calendar of events.

In a broader sense, I would love to see a higher level of advocacy for adults who are developmentally delayed. It is my hope that this program can play a small role in this.

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

I believe that the most pressing issue is access not only to health care itself, but access to information that can empower individuals to be advocates for their own health. I believe in the power of preventive medicine and in striving to promote health literacy and awareness.

Programs similar to those such as Columbus’s Physician Free Clinic (PFC), which has offered voluntary health care services to over 30,000 low income and uninsured individuals, are huge steps in the right direction. Health education and information is not something that should be available to only the well-off.  I believe the only way these health care issues will be addressed is by professionals stepping up and reaching out to those who are underserved—whether it is minority populations, people with disabilities, or low-income people. There is no easy answer that government reform is going to solve.  It comes down to those who have been given a lot, giving back to those who have not—whether is their time, their knowledge, or their health care services.  It will only happen if we get out of our comfort zones, and get into the community, where there are people who are truly in need.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

The most surprising thing to me has been how eager fellow students are to serve if given the opportunity. My project is built around volunteerism of students from different programs at OSU in order to create a program that is dynamic, with each person or group sharing a piece of expert knowledge from their specific discipline. When put together, it really creates a holistic picture of serving the adults at Goodwill. I have been pleasantly overwhelmed thus far by how many people have offered their support, volunteering their time to lead a program or to help out where they can. It is a great thing to see.

Another thing that has really surprised me is how welcoming the population I am serving has been. The participants that I have gotten to work with are some of the most enthusiastic people I have ever encountered in my life, and they are eager to learn and participate in new things. I thought it would be a challenge to get participants involved and to recruit a team of volunteers to be devoted and help me along the way, but neither has been the case.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

Being a Fellow is not just a 12-month, one-service-project deal for me; it is a lifelong commitment and mission. Being a Schweitzer Fellow means that I have the opportunity to be a part of something that is way beyond the scope of myself.  I have really gotten to know some amazing individuals involved in the Fellowship and have been inspired by their hearts and ideas. It is an honor to be part of such a group.

Being a part of the Fellowship has reinstated how important it is to devote my self and time to serving the needs of others.  It reminded me that school is not all about scholarships, credentials and grades, but about being agents of change. It honestly puts things into perspective. I have no doubt in my mind that together we can turn things upside, both in Columbus, and far beyond that.  I take to heart Albert Schweitzer’s words to “search and see if there is not some place that you can invest your humanity,” and that is something I will continue to seek out as long as I am able.

Tessa Yoder is a member of the inaugural class of Columbus Schweitzer Fellows.  Click here to read more about the Columbus Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Yoder it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Columbus Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Yoder’s efforts to improve the health and happiness of people with developmental disabilities, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows and Fellows for Life (program alumni) across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.