Improving Health Literacy in our Community

Posted on Friday, April 13, 2018

CSL Med Students Joanne Joseph, Jennifer DCruz, Mariya Kuk

Community Service Learning (CSL) is a credited educational experience, conducted as part of a course, in which students participate in a structured volunteer placement designed to meet a community need. We experienced the value of the CSL program in our first year of medical school; it prompted us to become better equipped to address the needs of the community, so we wanted to further develop this opportunity to improve the University of Ottawa student experience and benefit the community at large. Following a presentation on the social determinants of health, and realizing that literacy is a major determinant of future health and living status, we partnered with local health promotion advocates Dr. Laura Muldoon and Dr. Melissa Vyvey to brainstorm ideas that would improve literacy and health awareness among young children from lower income families. Joanne Joseph had completed a community outreach elective, so our team decided to work through the “Twice upon a Time” reading program run by the Ottawa YMCA Taggart Family Shelter.

Our aim was to promote, support and direct first-year medical students in organizing health-related activities, namely reading and book distribution, for children living at the shelter. This innovative project expanded a current outreach project by incorporating health education into literacy programs for vulnerable children. By reading with the children, the medical students gained first-hand knowledge of the developmental stages of childhood, as well as the effects of the certain social determinants of health, such as refugee status and poverty.

Our challenge was funding some of the activities we had planned. Fortunately, we received a Community Engagement Scholarship from the Michaëlle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement Fund, which solved our initial funding issues and helped us meet our goal of improving health literacy.  

The project started in January 2018 by involving six dedicated, first-year medical students. These students covered topics such as the importance of proper hand hygiene, the benefits of exercise, and how the heart works. The medical students also provided the children with hands-on demonstrations, as well as books and brochures on various health topics to reinforce the concepts and thus promote lifelong health awareness and improve literacy.

This project gives first-year medical students an opportunity to work with young children and to serve as role models who show them that reading and learning can be fun!

We hope the program will continue in future years, possibly by expanding it to run all year long.

We believe that community engagement means noticing and responding to a community need, and then meeting this need by partnering in a collaborative group, planning how to address the need, and carrying out the plan with frequent assessments.


By: Joanne Joseph, Jennifer DCruz, Mariya Kuk

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