Steans Center > About > News > Making a Difference: Building Healthcare Partnerships in Back of the Yards

Making a Difference: Building Healthcare Partnerships in Back of the Yards


Late one afternoon in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the city’s southwest side, young men and women access the kind of health service that may seem routine, but in reality can be tough to find in this low-income neighborhood. ​They have just walked into a conference room at Second Chance Alternative School, where they receive services from a clinic that counsels, educates and tests them for three different sexually transmitted infections. The students – who range in age from about 14 to 17 – receive these services through an innovative effort that results from a partnership between DePaul’s graduate nursing program and many people and organizations in the community. The specific aim of the project is to develop a culturally sensitive sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention program for Hispanic young adults.

The project resulted from the combined efforts – and synergy – of many partners, including the Howard Brown Health Center, Alivio Medical Center, San Miguel School and Holy Cross Parish Nursing. 


Howard Brown provided training and educational materials for Alivio Medical Center nurses and DePaul nursing students; Alivio arranged for staff nurses to conduct STI screening services, and will also provide for follow-up testing, treatment and counseling as needed. San Miguel School and Holy Cross Parish Nursing recruit for the screenings.

The screenings have been offered since last November. Later, screenings were moved from a local food pantry to the school, where participants in the project felt they would be better able to reach the targeted audience of young adults. Results of the tests are completely confidential.

The project emphasized the importance of using community resources and assets to provide a key service. “So many times with community health, we talk about problems, but here there are a lot of strengths – resources in a community that exist to help address specific concerns,” says Dr. Susan Poslusny, Chair of the Department of Nursing. “What students gain is a view of the community that is resource-focused, not problem-focused. The idea is to promote prevention by getting people to adopt healthy behaviors.”

“This project also makes great sense for nursing students,” she adds, “because in nursing, service learning is a core part of the education. That is how you learn and practice.”

Origins of project 

A few years ago, the Department of Nursing was looking for sites to place nursing students who focused on community health. At about the same time, Steans was building connections in the neighborhood, andDePaul students were tutoring students at San Miguel School as part of their service learning requirements. 

Meanwhile, a community group, Mujeres Decididas Para Mejorar La Comunidad (Women Committed to Improving the Neighborhood), raised issues of community safety, community health and access to medical services. ​DePaul nursing faculty and students participated in a health fair at San Miguel School, and eventually they conducted a health assessment of the community. After STI was identified as a key issue, faculty and students developed education materials and made presentations to students and community members.

Research supports need for project

“The STI rate has been declining in Chicago, but increasing by two to three times in this community,” says Dr. Young-Me Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing who is leading the nursing department’s work in this project. “Many people don’t have health insurance, or face language barriers, or don’t have information about STI.” Research by Dr. Lee and her team showed that there was “high incidence of STI’s in the Back of the Yards community, especially for women as a result of a knowledge deficit of safer sex practices, symptoms recognition and ability to inform partners.” More than one of three people in the community are living below the poverty line, research showed, and STI rates are considerably higher in the community than in the general population. The following year, Dr. Lee asked a group of nursing students to design an intervention program that focused in part on these issues.

Building a partnership

Although some may point out ways that STI workshops could be controversial, nursing students – and all partners in this project – were focused on the same goals. The focus was on preventing STIs by identifying the problem early, educating people and getting them treated. To make that happen, partners in this project agree, a wide range of people and organizations focused on community health worked together. “No one organization owns this screening,” says Mike Anderer-McClelland, Principal & Campus Director, San Miguel School, Back of the Yards. “Everybody feels like it’s theirs. The Steans Center has not just been working with one organization, but has been able to work with several organizations. Steans has managed to get to know all of us.” “For this project, credit is not as important as providing services to an underserved community,” adds Paco Zamora, Technical Assistance and Capacity Development Coordinator for Howard Brown Community Services.

Reaching the community

At Second Chance School, students who walk into the STI screening room go through three stations – intake, counseling and, finally, screening. Elizabeth Florez, a graduate of the nursing program who still volunteers at STI screenings, was involved in creating surveys and assessment worksheets that have been part of this effort. “As a nurse, you are always going to be educating people, and this project definitely brings you closer to the community. Once I leave the site of the screening, I feel so happy that I was able to help other people. If I just went to a job, or to school, I don’t know if it would be as fulfilling.”

Meanwhile, Sharon Dopak, who is completing her nursing degree this spring, says that participating in this project has fulfilled her hope to gain more experience in a community-based setting. “I really enjoy helping people when they are in situations where they don’t have resources or information about where to go,” she says. “I’ve also learned through this project that organization – and constant follow-up – are key when making partnerships work.” 

Potential of program

The Department of Nursing’s experience in the Back of the Yards community is also serving as a model for its work in other underserved communities, says Dr. Poslusny. In the North Lawndale community, the Department of Nursing has been collaborating with four schools to provide a range of health-related services, including physicals and health education. “Our long-term goal here, as in Back of the Yards, is to develop a partnership so that we can maintain a continuing presence in communities and provide service learning opportunities for students,” she says. “That will include individual and group reflection.” The model is also being shared with other schools at DePaul, suggesting that it can work for those offering education, social work and other services.

“Our long-term goal here, as in Back of the Yards, is to develop a partnership so that we can maintain a continuing presence in communities and provide service learning opportunities for students.”

Meanwhile, partners in the STI program also say it could be replicated elsewhere in Chicago – and perhaps around the country. Maria Mendez, parish nurse for Holy Cross Hospital, has provided screening services at the STI screenings. “I think this is a very valuable program that would benefit many other communities,” adds Mendez. “In the Back of the Yards community, many parents and older people don’t have information about these issues – so how are they going to be able to talk to children about them?” 


Though STIs have been controlled in many communities, there are still 19 million new cases every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About half of those cases involve young adults between the ages of 15 and 24. The prevalence of the problem, and promise of the partnership in the Back of the Yards community, suggests that this kind of partnership could make an impact in other communities that need similar services. “This experience has really taught us the importance of community partnerships,” says Dr. Lee. “We believe this effort could be a model for future projects.” ​