Online FNP Program Develops Community Connections in Rural West Virginia

Eleven students in the online Family Nurse Practitioner and Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Programs, offered through Nursing@Georgetown at the School of Nursing & Health Studies, made the trip alongside faculty leaders Melody Wilkinson, DNP, FNP, and Amy Bull, PhD, FNP-BC.

“Georgetown asks us to engage the world in service to others, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community,” said Bull, who is the assistant director of the FNP Program. “Our goal is to develop sustainable partnerships with community groups who continue to have tremendous need with limited resources.”

‘Desperately Needs Our Help’

The June 2016 flood in West Virginia counties was damaging and wide-reaching. The National Weather Service described the rains as a “one in a thousand year event,” that forced families to abandon their homes and seek alternatives for shelter, food, and access to immediate health care.

Before the rains ended, West Virginia’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management tallied the devastating losses: 24 fatalities and over 17,000 homes and businesses without electricity, 1,200 of which were severely damaged or destroyed altogether, according to reports from CNN.  

Considering the needs of a recovering community, Bull said that Nurse Practitioner students are able “... to provide education and support to a rural population that desperately needs our help.”

Georgetown University Answers the Call

Sponsored by the school’s Experiential Learning Fund, the trip sought to “engage Georgetown University graduate students in a rural, underserved community,” added Bull, who organized the trip with Wilkinson, a West Virginia native who directs the FNP Program.

During the three-day mission, the Hoyas volunteered to support and educate the community directly impacted by the powerful flooding, which were classified by then-President Obama as a major disaster and a state of emergency by FEMA. 

The Nursing@Georgetown service group is shown in front of the home of Professor Vicki Dobbins in Clendenin, West Virginia, where they stayed during the trip. From left to right (front): Mike Aulert, Nancy Sperry, Carrie Schaefer, Abigail Young, Prof. Amy Bull, Michelle Sandwisch, and Prof. Vicki Dobbins. Front left to right (back): Gabrielle Dorn, Alyssa McDonald, Prof. Melody Wilkinson, Kristen Kubik, and Danielle Saikali. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

The trip was also an opportunity to initiate relationships with various area stakeholders, including a local church, home health agencies, schools, volunteer organizations, and the American Red Cross through a collaboration called the Pillowcase Project.

Building upon connections initiated by Wilkinson and adjunct faculty professor Vicki Dobbins — both familiar with the unique social disparities of the area — the group hoped to not only develop trusting relationships with community members, but also to identify goals for future service visits.

Student Reflections 

To learn more about this service trip, the program asked students to share testimonials about their experience. Read their responses below.

Gabrielle Dorn, FNP candidate

 “The recent Georgetown University trip to Appalachia was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I experienced such beauty, compassion, and generosity of spirit during my time in the Clendenin and Clay communities. I know that the inspiration and lessons I learned in West Virginia will continue to reverberate through my life and my future career as a health care provider.” 

Student Alyssa McDonald plays with a child in Clendenin, West Virginia, with a toy gifted by the Nursing@Georgetown students. Many children are unable to play in their home yards due to the dangerous wreckage that remains after the 2016 flood. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Danielle Saikali, FNP candidate

“In an area where its inhabitants were already at or below the poverty line, the flood left many with nothing. As we listened to a few of the community members who were affected by the flood, a few recurring themes were apparent: Hopelessness, anxiety, and faith. What was left? Where would they go? How would they rebuild? How would their basic needs be met?  

This has taught us students so much. It taught us that our ears for listening are just as important as our hands are for healing. Georgetown preaches the cura personalis. This trip indeed provided opportunities for us to care for individuals as a whole being.”

Located in the forested hills of eastern Clay County, Widen was built in 1911 as a coal town and operated until 1963, when its last mine closed. As business dried up, 28.2 percent of Clay County was living below the poverty line from 2011 to 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. After the 2016 floods, that number is now estimated to be higher. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Nancy Sperry, FNP candidate

“I find the sound of rain to be soothing. Children in Clay County find rain to be an emotional trigger in fear of another flood. Many uninhabited homes still retain a spray-painted placard denoting structural inspections or rescue markings. My home simply exhibits my main dwelling on a parcel of land. I thank the Clay County community for welcoming us, sharing their stories, displaying resilience, and teaching all of us meaningful life lessons.”

The service trip group collaborates with Kanawha County Long Term Recovery Team to clean the bank of a resident’s home in Clendenin, West Virginia. From left to right: Prof. Melody Wilkinson, Carrie Schafer, Mike Aulert, and volunteer community member Clarence Minger. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

 Jennifer Messina, FNP candidate

“During our mission trip to West Virginia, I realized just how many vital necessities or conveniences that there really are that I had never before even considered. Because of this mission trip, I have developed a more accurate understanding of the destruction that results from catastrophic natural disaster, and an ignited passion for…serving others during their greatest time of need.”

A collection area for debris that has been reclaimed from the riverbank and surrounding land is shown in Clendenin, West Virginia. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student  

Michelle Sandwisch, FNP candidate

“During the mission trip, one of the projects that we participated in was the Pillowcase Project. In conjunction with the Red Cross, The Pillowcase Project provides disaster and emergency education to children in grades three through five. It teaches children best ways to stay safe, emotional coping skills, and personal and home preparedness. At the end of training, a pillowcase is provided for children to pack essential items in their pillowcase for easy transfer in the event of a disaster. Children are given markers to draw a picture on pillowcases. One pillowcase resonated with me. A young boy drew a picture of what I assumed to be his home. As I watched him, I wondered silently whether or not he had ever talked to anyone, including his parents about his experience after it happened. I wondered if his parents would be surprised or taken off guard when he brought his pillowcase home. Although it is difficult to describe in words, the warmth of the people and the stories about how they survived their circumstances and continue to be impacted were both heartbreaking and inspirational.”

An elementary school student in Clay, West Virginia, participates in the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project led by Nursing@Georgetown students. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Mike Aulert, FNP candidate

“Experiences like these bring us closer to what really matters in our profession: people. The smallest touch on another’s life can impact them in profound ways, as evidenced by the fourth-grader who felt that our 30-minute presentation on emergency preparedness impacted her meaningfully enough to draw us on her emergency preparedness pillowcase. If half an hour was enough time for this child to feel that she trusted us and wanted us with her in a time of emergency, think of the impact our actions have on our patients. This trip evoked constant contemplation of the importance of relationships and our fundamental responsibility to help one another.”  

Community member in Clendenin, West Virginia, discuss ongoing relief efforts with Nursing@Georgetown students. From left to right: Students Nancy Sperry, Mike Aulert, Michelle Sandwisch, Alyssa McDonald, and Abigail Young. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Abigail Young, FNP candidate

“Of the many lessons I learned during my time in West Virginia, the one that stands out most to me was taught to me by a gentleman I met at a community gathering in one of the local churches. He explained that the only qualification necessary to help others is a desire to help. He is right of course. Think of what our communities and nation could be like if we all practiced what this gentleman lived by willingly giving of ourselves without thought of reward..”

Residents of more than 40 counties in West Virginia live in a food desert, experiencing some sort of limited access to nutrients or healthful whole food, according to the USDA. This fruit aisle is in the only grocery store in Clay, West Virginia. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Alyssa McDonald, FNP candidate

“Traveling to West Virginia has provided me with incredible insight into the health disparities the community faces. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable this experience has been to my FNP education. The lessons I have learned from being totally immersed in a different culture are invaluable to my career. Connecting with members of the Appalachian community and with my classmates and professors was an amazing, unforgettable experience. I hope that Georgetown students can continue to implement their values of contemplation in action, social justice, and value of the common good to advance the health and well-being of underserved communities for years to come.”

Community members at Advantage Home Care in Clay, West Virginia, listen to Nursing@Georgetown student presentations on diabetes and healthy eating. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Kristen Kubik, FNP candidate

“This trip has taught me it is vital to listen. Listen to what their needs are, what they perceive to be important and what they hope to receive from our interaction with them. When asking a young child greatly impacted by the flood, and who is being raised in the most rural part of West Virginia, how we can be of the most help? Not only is it important to listen in order to build trust, but also to refrain from judgment. Do not try to fix what their normal and accepted way of living is. Embrace who they are and work within those boundaries. Lastly, ‘just do.’ Do not wait to be asked, because many will not ask. If you see a need, ‘just do.’”

Practicing subcutaneous needle insertion, Georgetown students work with high schoolers interested in health occupations at Clay County High School in Clay, West Virginia. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Student Mike Aulert gives a presentation to home health workers and community members about diabetes at a community store in Clay, West Virginia. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Carrie Schaefer, FNP candidate

“I was in awe of the people and their resilience, not just with the flood, but with the loss of jobs and resources. I can better understand how important the coal mines are to these areas and how those affected by regulations are frustrated with their government officials. I can see more clearly a perspective I had not truly understood before. I can see the beauty in small communities and how knowing your neighbors can be a blessing. I will never forget this experience and am so grateful to Georgetown and our professors for arranging such an important undertaking.”

During their time spent in small West Virginia towns, Georgetown students saw the significance of this roadside message in Clendenin, West Virginia. Photographer: Spring Maddox, student

Adding In-Person Engagement to Online Learning

Through this act of service, the students were able to lead discussions with residents about resources for healthy living while also gaining inspiration, which was a priority for the professors leading the excursion. “[Prof. Wilkinson] and I felt that in an online program we needed to provide an opportunity for faculty and students to have a working relationship with each other and with a community,” said Bull. “Students remarked that they were glad to see their faculty role-modeling interactions and negotiating an initial relationship with community leaders and members. As FNP leadership, it was important for online students to visit a rural community that has profound needs yet maintains an incredible sense of resilience and hope. It is these types of opportunities that remind us why we became — or are becoming — a Nurse Practitioner.”


This piece was produced for Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies’ Online FNP Program.