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Center for Global Health Joins Forces with Chesapeake Initiative

By Irv Harrell

Health outcome disparities are shocking in Chesapeake. Depending on where you live, your life expectancy can vary by as much as 12 years.

Dr. Nancy Welch, director of the city's health department, aims to change that with the help of Old Dominion University's Center for Global Health. A couple of years ago she devised a plan to address areas in the city with subpar health outcomes. Through an initiative called Healthy Chesapeake, Welch enlisted the center, Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, the City of Chesapeake, the Virginia Cooperative Extension and other regional stakeholders.

Student interns with the Center for Global Health have been working with Healthy Chesapeake and the city's health department for the past two years, evaluating 17 projects under way in the city. They range from cooking classes and baby care to youth employment and family planning.

Michele Kekeh, the research coordinator for the Center for Global Health, said the interns have greatly benefited from their work.

"We didn't know they had pockets of poverty like that in Chesapeake," she said. "Our work with Healthy Chesapeake gives the students a hands-on opportunity to help the community. We are responsible for doing the evaluation."

Boen Kyoung Sam graduated from ODU in May 2018 with a bachelor of science in health science with a concentration in health services. She spent the past summer interning with the Center for Global Health and working with Healthy Chesapeake. The internship has been invaluable and enlightening, she said.

"My experience as an intern opened my eyes to what these communities really need," Sam said. "We should continue to expand our reach to other communities that might need our help."

Welch, who received her MBA at ODU in 1997 and serves on the advisory boards for the center and the College of Health Sciences, said she's grateful for ODU's evaluation work. Some of the results have led to strategic changes, she said.

One example Welch cited is Healthy Chesapeake's work at an apartment complex for low-income senior citizens. With food access a big issue in this community, Welch's team worked on developing gardens and teaching residents to cook and tend to the gardens.

"We then relied on the Center for Global Health to do an evaluation to tell us where we're strong where we're weak; how we could actually do it better so we could duplicate this program in other places," said Welch, who has been involved in public health for about 40 years.

"What we thought the community would comment most about was the access to food and the cooking," she added. "But that was not the case. What they commented about was 'I know my neighbors now,' 'I'm not lonely anymore,' 'I don't sit in my room and cry because I'm depressed.'"

As a result, Healthy Chesapeake added more components emphasizing interaction among the residents. Not only did the citizens reap a lot of benefit, but the company that manages the apartments gave Healthy Chesapeake additional money because it was impressed that there were fewer illnesses and less turnover in the community, Welch said.

"The Center for Global Health's work was not only valuable to residents but valuable to the business itself," she said. "It's a privilege to be a part of this and I can tell you from a public-health perspective that we are blessed to have this kind of evaluation right here at our back door."

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