Important Lessons in an Important Place

The Chinese have built a stadium and low income housing (which they brought in their own workers to build); the Venezuelans have oil facilities, the Japanese built the fish markets, several huge cruise ships dock here weekly, and Queen Elizabeth is on the dollar bill. And so it is clear this tiny Island paradise with a population that could fit into the Big House with a couple of seats to spare, is important to the wider region in ways that might not be so visible to us.

Why are WE here? Because we have smart students who need hands-on experience in building and maintaining transparent partnerships; developing deep cultural awareness and respect; and to know that “need” is not synonymous with desperation. 

Our main partner in this year’s PHAST trip (Public Health Action and Support Team) is St. Georges University, a large, private university in St. George’s, Grenada’s capital. The campus sits above beautiful ocean vistas and houses some 2000 mostly international students studying liberal arts, sciences, and medicine. Dr. Phyllis Meadows and Dana Thomas of the Office of Public Health Practice enlisted Dr. Rohan Jeremiah, a UM-SPH alumni and current research faculty, to leverage contacts he developed while teaching here, to launch this PHAST journey. The partnership has long term potential for UM-SPH Practice Office and Global Pubic Health Initiative and for St. Georges University as they build both their public health practice and several departments within their public health program. The Practice Office is interested in meaningful projects for students that assist with building community and organizational capacity and this partnership can provide continuity. The Global Public Health Initiative is also very interested in partnerships that provide ongoing opportunities for faculty and students, help build capacity for ourselves and partners, and that acknowledge the complex and interdisciplinary nature of global health challenges.

This year, we are working with three diverse, community-based entities from the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

The Spice Island project stems from the enlightened desire of the Spice Island Beach Resort’s management to provide health and wellness information and resources to their 200+ employees. Our students are administering a needs assessment survey in the employee canteen, giving employees a chance to rank health and wellness topics of interest; discuss the impact of stress; and determine when and how health and wellness information would be best delivered. Employees work hard at the posh resort (with rooms priced up to $3000 a night), and their jobs are seasonal so they spend several months each year without regular work. Yet most are happy with their jobs and quite willing to participate in wellness programs. Cancer, diabetes, and weight management seem to be key concerns.

The Sickle Cell Association works with adult caretakers of children living with sickle cell anemia. A major issue on the Island, the first official diagnosis of sickle cell anemia was Grenadian dental student Walter Noel, who was studying in Chicago in the early 1900s. Our students are working on a survey to assess what parents and other caretakers know about sickle cell, and what challenges they face in caring for their children. They are learning how parents can be extremely protective of children perceived as sick in a society where any kind of illness seems to be stigmatized. They are also learning about the passionate commitment of native Grenadians to make things better: The Sickle Cell Association is run and self-funded by a retired nurse who worked for three decades in the U.K. before returning to the land of her birth.

The third project, Sports for Health, engages the Island’s Security force in nightly exercise activities at two sites in the community. Several hundred Grenadians show up each evening to exercise, led by police officers. Our group is developing a health fair to educate participants about healthy eating, portion size, and reading nutritional labels. They have learned that it isn’t always so easy to find culturally relevant images to incorporate into their training, something many of them take for granted in the States. They have also learned that up to 10% of Island residents are diabetic, despite a physical lifestyle, and that is isn’t so easy to translate good nutritional information to a local context, highlighting locally available fruits and vegetables and food preferences.

All three of these projects are intended to continue well past our departure, which makes them the kind of sustainable projects we want our students to support. The data we are collecting continues and advances each project.  In the case of Spice Island, we are learning exactly what might work for workplace wellness programming. At the Sickle Cell Association, the data may help the organization garner financial support. At Sports for Health, the overwhelming success of the health fair indicates how eager people are to add healthy eating to their exercise regimes.

It has been a challenging time. It’s hot, it’s hard to concentrate with these gorgeous beaches staring you in the face, and people are busy with their lives. But UM-SPH PHAST teams are really digging in to make their time fruitful, and to make certain they leave behind something useful and lasting. We can only imagine what next year’s teams can do to build on these efforts, and what long-term exchanges we might develop together.

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