Student-Led Initiative Aims to Address Health Inequities in Chester

Hilary Bentman, Assistant Director of Communications
Two students and a community partner standing outside Everest Urgent Care
Students Ijjae Hill (left) and Kaitlyn Lathrop (right), with community partner Tiffany Beauford (center), outside Everest Urgent Care.

Ijjae Hill is driven to help others and inspire those around her to do the same.

Before the pandemic, the Widener sophomore had been researching health inequities and disparities in Chester. When COVID-19 hit, and those issues became even more pronounced, she was compelled to take action. 

Hill reached out to the university’s Center for Civic and Global Engagement (CCGE) with ideas.

Fast forward a few months, and her drive has led to Widener securing a grant to fund COVID-19 tests for uninsured Chester residents; to support research to gain a clearer picture of health access, resources, and gaps in the city; and to host an educational panel to discuss the issues.
And the hope is that these initiatives are just the seed of an ongoing effort to promote health care equity and access.

This is not a problem we can solve on our own. Health equity is a national issue. But we wanted to begin our work in Chester. If I start here, I can inspire other people. — Ijjae Hill, visual and performing arts / pre-physical therapy major

With the help of a team of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, and staff at the CCGE, Hill applied for and secured a $5,000 grant from the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation through its Racial Justice Community Fund. The fund supports initiatives addressing a number of issues around racial injustice, including health disparities.

Widener has a long-standing partnership with the Bonner Foundation, and the university offers the Bonner Leaders (Presidential Service Corps) program, a scholarship program designed to develop the change agents of our time. Hill is a PSC Bonner scholar.

Hill and her team have immediate and long-term goals for the funding. In the short-term, part of the grant was used to fund 19 COVID-19 tests for nearby Everest Urgent Care to administer to uninsured Chester residents. 

Graduate student Bolanle Akinloye
Graduate student Bolanle Akinloye

The grant will also help fund research on health care equity, access, and resources in Chester. Graduate student Bolanle Akinloye, who is pursuing an MBA in health care management, has joined the team to conduct interviews with residents, community leaders, and health care providers, and to analyze data.

“We want to figure out where the gaps are and find sustainable ways to meet those needs. What sources do we have and what do we need?” asks Akinloye, who has a background in community health and first-hand knowledge of living with health insurance uncertainties.

Health equity has long been an issue, but COVID-19, said Akinloye, has brought it to the forefront. 

“It was the big elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. COVID-19 has brought it to the surface. It’s a public health crisis and everyone now has to have that conversation,” said Akinloye. “How can we give people access – access to testing, to care?”

The goal of the research is to hear directly from community members about the gaps and deficits they face, their issues navigating complex health and insurance systems, language barriers, and other hurdles. In this way, future efforts can be directed based on the community’s stated needs and desires. 

“Being able to have concrete numbers in Chester and Delaware County, we can make this a long-term thing, as we look into inequities, cost barriers, and health care issues. We want to make sure we’re actually serving the community and not just showing up for a day or two,” said Kaitlyn Lathrop ’23, a marketing and communications studies major who is assisting with the project.

To help facilitate interviews, the team will tap into the university’s connections in the community via its pro bono clinics, and through its academic programs, including nursing and social work.

“This gives us the opportunity to connect with existing organizations and strengthen the work we’re already doing,” said Marina Barnett, associate professor of social work who advises the PSC Bonner program and has been conducting health care-related research in Chester for nearly two decades. Barnett had connections and resources in the city to help Hill get started.

Marina Barnett
Associate Professor Marina Barnett

The Bonner grant will also support a health equity panel, hosted by Widener on Tuesday, April 27, featuring community leaders committed to addressing and promoting health equity in their work. The panel is designed to educate participants on the disparities within the health care system regarding race and socioeconomic status while emphasizing the importance of health and racial equity. 

Barnett says Hill is a great example of how Widener students cultivate their leadership skills to make a positive impact on the community and the world around them.

“Many people would have said ‘I can’t do anything. I can’t make a difference. I’m one person.’ Ijjae didn’t say that. She said, ‘how can I do this?’ She is an awesome leader already,” said Barnett. 

Added Barnett: “We think about all the things we want students to do. We want them to take these skills and funnel it into a way that helps someone else. This is protecting people’s families, connecting people to resources, and potentially saving those individuals.” 
Hill’s ultimate goal is to put a team in place that carries on the work even after she graduates, and one that continues to tap into the expertise of the Widener community. She credits the university with providing her with the support to make it happen.

“If I wasn’t at Widener,” said Hill, “I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”

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