By Irvin B. Harrell

The Virginia Beach Oceanfront Area Library bustled with activity on a recent Thursday morning.

In addition to its usual visitors, faculty and students from Old Dominion University were on hand. Their objective: providing health-care assessments to those in need. Through an initiative a couple of years in the making, ODU collaborated with Virginia Beach to create a multiple-win situation in a region of Hampton Roads that has fought fiercely to provide support for its homeless and underserved populations.

The project is called "I-hear," which stands for Interprofessional Health Education and Research. Its main objectives are to provide health screenings for those unable to afford them, give health sciences students experiences working in the community, create a space for those students to collaborate among their different disciplines and learn from each other, and open the door for research on how and where to engage those who have fallen through the health-care cracks in society.

ODU Provost Austin Agho began championing and supporting the idea about two years ago, as the College of Health Sciences' School of Nursing expanded to the Virginia Beach Higher Education Center off Princess Anne Road. It made sense that with the nursing program in the area that ODU expand its community engagement in Virginia Beach, he said.

"I anticipate that our faculty and students will continue to play a greater role in community efforts to address health disparities and improve access to primary care, dental and mental health services," he said.

Collaborations such as I-hear have made ODU among the relatively few institutions nationwide to receive a 2020 Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation.

Renee Olander, associate vice president for regional higher education centers at ODU, has served as the maestro for the effort, collaborating with the library, city and several agencies to provide a good setting for the project.

"The key was to start small and manageable as we expanded our footprint in this city," Olander said.

I-hear's first step has been to set up four health fairs for adults and children in collaboration with the PiN (People in Need) Foundation and PATH (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) at the Virginia Beach library. PiN provides food, clothing, shelter and free medical care for the homeless or extremely poor. PATH is a federal, state and local partnership that assists adults with serious mental illness who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of becoming homeless.

The inaugural fair on Jan. 30 brought together students, faculty and health professionals from six disciplines: dental hygiene, nursing, human services, public health, speech and language pathology, and mental health. The 5½-hour session resulted in 12 adults being seen, with four receiving dental care appointments and four getting mental health care appointments.

Professor Carolyn Rutledge, from the School of Nursing, has been involved since the inception of the idea in 2017. She represents the College of Health Sciences and has helped coordinate different areas of care.

"This has been a university effort," she said. "The College of Education - speech and language pathology, clinical counseling and health services - have been involved as well in developing the health-fair idea."

Rutledge applauded the success of the first fair, saying there is a huge need for such programs, given that many of the homeless are often reluctant to engage with the health-care system.

"The needs are huge, especially in addressing the social determinants of health such as health literacy, transportation and access," she said. "Our students must have experiences like this in order to truly understand the health-care crisis and how they can be an integral part in addressing it."

Registered nurse and nurse practitioner student Carrie Batchelder provided social determinants of health assessments to clients at the fair.

"I had not participated in a program like that before," she said, adding that it was her first time working with the homeless or those transitioning from Medicaid to Medicare. "I found it to be a great learning experience."

Associate Professor Jeffry Moe, with ODU's Department of Counseling & Human Services, represents the counseling program in the College of Education & Professional Studies and also spoke to the mental health components during planning for the project. The experience has been eye-opening, he said.

"I've really enjoyed working with representatives from the other clinical training-oriented programs," he said. "I've learned about their professions and capabilities, and I know they've appreciated learning about the role of counselors in health care."

Community-based research is lecturer Sharon Stull's expertise at ODU's School of Dental Hygiene. She enlisted about 10 of her students to participate in the series of health fairs.

"What first comes to mind in health equity issues are the barriers of transportation and cost. Therefore, I feel the true value of these health-screening events is that we come to those who are experiencing multiple barriers to health care," she said.

Libraries, over time, have been found to be safe havens for the homeless - places where they can find shelter, warmth during cold weather and resources. The I-hear effort has tapped into this institution.

"We must go where those in need of our services are and the library is one place where the homeless go to stay warm and have access to computers," Rutledge said. "Libraries also have the space that is needed."

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