​“Promoting Healthy Communities” — a class taught each fall by Susan Reed, associate professor, School for New Learning — combines academic research with community projects, giving students an opportunity to see how the ideas they read about in books apply in real people’s lives.

The intent with the class is to teach students how to work with or within a community organization to design projects that promote health and reduce disparities. To do that, the class balances issue-focused readings and discussions about critical health issues with hands-on field work done in collaboration with the Community of Wellness in Humboldt Park, a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to improving the neighborhood’s health and a community partner of DePaul’s Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning.

“In my experience, adult students want both academic and real-world learning – a chance to learn and to do,” says Reed. “They get both in this class.”  Her students appreciate that. Raquel Esparza (’11) says, “We got a lot of practical information in this class. Now, I understand the issues of community health as well as what’s ‘behind the scenes’ in service learning – all the effort that goes into planning a program or event, organizing the various components required for success, and overcoming all the potential setbacks that go along with working in a community.”

Connected to the Community
 
Each spring, Reed meets with the executive director of the Community of Wellness, Juana Ballesteros; together, they decide on a project appropriate for the upcoming fall class. The work of the organization centers around eight health priorities:  asthma, active lifestyles, behavioral health, diabetes, health careers, HIV/AIDS, oral health, and school health.
 
“At the Community of Wellness in Humboldt Park, we try to look at root causes of heath disparities,” says Ballesteros. “Because health problems don’t occur in a bubble, we look at social, economic, and cultural factors that come into play. The community is rich in resources — we have long-standing, federally qualified health centers, three hospitals, and multiple social services agencies – but our population continues to have high rates of health problems. The keys to closing the gap are communication and collaboration; we develop and execute large, engaging projects designed to inform and educate. The contributions of our 60 partners, including Susan Reed’s class and DePaul University, make these projects possible.”
 
In 2009, Reed’s class put together a much-needed HIV resource guide designed to address the language and cultural disconnects that contribute to a high rate of infection. This year, the class acted as docents for “Everyone Matters,” a showcase of art by people with mental health issues. Sponsored by the organization’s behavioral health task force, the show’s intent was to raise awareness about mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness. To satisfy the final requirements for the class, the students wrote proposals for programs they’d like to sponsor.
 
Lessons Learned
 
For Norm Well (’13) the class “take-aways” are both philosophical and practical:  “The art show itself was all about including others in a community; it illustrated the importance of overcoming fear and distrust, of bringing outsiders inside. I also learned that a service learning project has to be relevant: the project sponsors have to speak the community’s language, literally and figuratively. Otherwise, a project runs the risk of not connecting.”
 
Teresita Gomez (’13) had a personal reaction to the class and the art show. I’ve lived in Humboldt Park my whole life, and in this class I learned things about my own neighborhood that I’ve never known. For example, Humboldt Park the higher rate of depression than surrounding communities. Yet, people still don’t seek help because of the stigma of mental illness, or because they don’t have health insurance, or because they’re afraid they’ll be deported if they go to the doctor. I gained a real education in the issues, and in the future I hope to get more involved in my own community.”
 
“In this class, students learn the practical importance of purposeful planning, from idea through implementation,” says Reed.  “But they also see the value of real-world community service. It’s one thing to know a statistic; it’s another to care about a human being.”