Alicia Best is one of five EMU nursing students who volunteered at Patchwork Pantry in Harrisonburg.

EMU nursing students aid clients

For five Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) nursing students, the busy semester before graduation in May 2011, included a month’s volunteering at Patchwork Pantry in Harrisonburg, Va., each Wednesday.

Tsega Mamo, of Ethiopia, explained her duties as “to take blood pressures and also to teach clients about ways to improve their lifestyles, to keep their blood pressure within the range.”

Abigale Diffenbach, from Lancaster, Pa., added that during the hour while clients wait to obtain groceries, “we are answering any questions that the clientele have regarding high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, nutrition and diabetes. We have health education materials for each of these subjects. We are also asking them if they have a health care provider that they see.”

The group — including  classmates Alicia Best, Rachel Good and Riccia Robinson — worked with Kelli Mitchell from the Free Dental Clinic and Ashley McWilliams of the Harrisonburg Community Health Center (HCHC).

They were fulfilling a Community Health Nursing class requirement to “provide a health service and teaching to a specific population within the community,” Diffenbach explained.

They contacted Alex DeHavilland, director for Valley Aids Network and a pantry board member, who in turn had enlisted help from dental clinic and HCHC colleagues. DeHavilland found it a good match: “these clinics already serve many of the pantry’s clients and they operate on a sliding scale.”

Local bus schedules and Spanish interpretation were provided. When Diffenbach, who hopes to work at a hospital in Lancaster, put a Spanish-speaking client in touch with McWilliams from HCHC after learning she had no health provider or insurance, she recalls, “It made me realize that what we were doing was serving a purpose, and that we could actually help some people through our project.”

DeHavilland hopes more such services can be offered.

“For the nursing students this opportunity has been invaluable,” said DeHavilland. “Many of the clients that come to pantry are dealing with serious health issues and other emotional/psychological issues that impact their health.  Through their interaction, the nursing students were exposed to issues and situations that are not part of textbooks or classroom learning.”


Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg.