The COVID-19 pandemic, still lingering after hitting the world hard last year, drove home the importance of studying public health, which focuses on preventing disease as opposed to treating it after the fact.
That’s why Baldwin Wallace University in Berea is constantly growing its Department of Public Health and Prevention Science, which includes both bachelor’s and master’s public health programs.
“Prevention of disease or preventive care can save costs, as well as more lives, in the long term than treatment alone,” says Swagata Banik, dean of graduate studies and research and professor of public health and prevention science at Baldwin Wallace.
“Population health or public health focuses on the community as a whole,” Banik says. “To prevent disease and illness across communities, we need to understand the fundamental cause of disease and/or the underlying social determinants of health and health care.”
Since the study of public health involves the community, it makes sense to partner with community groups and businesses, including Medical Mutual. The Cleveland-based health insurer has donated $1 million to Baldwin Wallace for the endowment of a new professor position in public health.
The professor, once hired, will conduct research in public health, perform community service projects and teach in both the bachelor’s and master’s public health programs.
Christine Taylor, community affairs manager at Medical Mutual, says her company has insured Baldwin Wallace staff for more than 80 years and has partnered with the university on several past projects.
“What excites me most about this particular partnership is that it will help ensure that future public health workers are being prepared by the brightest minds in the field, right here in Northeast Ohio,” Taylor says. “Without question, we know that each of the students taught by the new professor of public health will be graduating with the skills, knowledge and values necessary for a successful career in the health sciences.”
Banik says the endowment is a long-term commitment to public health and disease prevention.
“It’s a testimony that Baldwin Wallace is establishing public health as an area of expertise, that we are a quality program,” Banik says. “Our goal is to contribute to the health and well-being of Northeast Ohio and beyond.”
Establishing Community Roots
The Medical Mutual endowment is the latest in a string of grant agreements and partnerships Baldwin Wallace’s public health program has entered into over the past few years. Last fall, Baldwin Wallace received more than $220,000 from AmeriCorps, a federal volunteer service organization. The grant supported Baldwin Wallace’s new Community Health and Nutrition Guided Empowerment through Integration of Navigators in Cleveland (CHANGE, INC) program, in which six students were paired with six community members to help those suffering from food insecurity in Greater Cleveland neighborhoods.
The students, earning part-time pay while gaining social service experience, were stationed at MetroHealth System’s main campus in the Clark-Fulton and at the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp. (CDC) on Pearl Road.
The students and citizens “navigated” residents to their services. The program is a partnership with MetroHealth, Old Brooklyn CDC and Metro West Community Development Organization.
Hunter Welch, 20, a premed student at Baldwin Wallace, signed up for the navigator program last year and is still involved today. It began as a chance for her to become involved in the community, but evolved into a life-changing experience.
“You don’t get that experience studying to be a doctor — you don’t learn about the people,” Welch says. “I wanted to learn about the community. Food insecurity is a problem everywhere, in rural and urban areas.”
After receiving training, Welch started as a navigator in September 2020, working with the Metro West community group. She was given a list of residents receiving assistance from the local Meals on Wheels program, and she started making calls to find out if they had any needs.
Welch’s first client was a senior confined to a wheelchair who had no one to remove snow from her driveway or take out her trash. She was food insecure — Meals on Wheels wasn’t enough for her — and she needed clothes. The woman also had a history of abuse. And she was imprisoned in her home due to the pandemic.
“She was alone and scared,” Welch says. She connected her with services.
“The last time I talked to her, she told me she was coming off Meals on Wheels because she had too much food,” Welch says.
Welch also found the woman a virtual bingo game and movie night where she could interact with others.
“I wrote her a note and sent a wallet-size picture of myself,” Welch says. “She put my picture up on her wall because I helped her so much. I was like family, and she said I would be family forever.”
A Healthy City
In summer 2020, Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge — a national effort to advance health equity across all communities in the U.S. — awarded a $100,000 grant to Baldwin Wallace, MetroHealth and the Old Brooklyn CDC, along with the Cleveland Department of Public Health, to start the navigator program.
“The Healthiest Cities grant has a research component,” Banik says. “We are researching if the people we serve are really accessing food and nutrition resources over time and to see if that impacts their health and quality of life.”
Meanwhile, Baldwin Wallace’s Center for Health Disparities Research and Education — established in 2013 to engage community members, conduct training and research and organize public health conferences — has been active from its beginning.
In 2014, the center hosted a national conference on LGBTQ health in conjunction with the Gay Games, which were in Cleveland that year. Also, in 2015, the center and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health partnered on a one-day symposium entitled, “Prevention of Opioid Use and Abuse on College Campuses.”
“Baldwin Wallace is becoming an important player in population health and public health education in Northeast Ohio,” Banik says. “Part of our mission is to address health and well-being through the lens of social justice.”