Dr. Hamidah Sharif-Harris (pictured fourth from right), a Fort Valley State University assistant professor of public health, empowers her Master of Public Health students to serve others.
The devastation of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas remains a month later after the Category 5 storm made landfall on Sept. 1. On the path to become public health professionals, Fort Valley State University’s Master of Public Health students are using their skills to give back to storm survivors.
During the week that Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, Dr. Hamidah Sharif-Harris, assistant professor of public health, asked her class what their role should be in a natural disaster as public health students. “As graduate students, I needed them to understand that they are only as good as the communities they serve,” Sharif-Harris said. “If they are working on a Master of Public Health and there is a public health crisis brewing, then their job will always be to formulate some response.”
The Harlem, New York, native charged her students to develop a list of ideas that could be done in response to Hurricane Dorian. After learning through the news media that a significant amount of women and children were fleeing the Bahamas to Miami, Florida, the MPH students jumped into action. They initiated a Baby Diapers and Wipes Drive to collect infant and toddler diapers and wipes across FVSU’s campus for survivors. This kicked off the students’ new campaign called FVSU CARES (Community Action in Response to Emergency Situations).
The name came from Elliot Robinson, a first-year MPH student who works for the 30th Adjutant General (Reception) Battalion in Fort Benning, Georgia. Thanking his colleagues for donating products, he commended the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded people. “We are all connected,” he said. “It is an honor to provide selfless service.”
Another student, Rachel Serrano, who is a second-year MPH student, contacted a friend, Ben Varner of Adcom Worldwide in Atlanta, to help with logistics. Serrano said she formerly served as a military reservist with Varner. He volunteered to handle all the logistics of shipping the donated products to the Miami drop-off location.
“I am always drawn to things that help give back to people. That is the reason I served in the military and the reason I am earning a public health degree. It is nice to do something bigger than yourself,” she said.
In addition, MPH student Walter Miller invited FVSU undergraduates to participate by creating a hashtag contest. He has received 30 hashtag ideas so far. He plans to award $100 to the winner.
Miller also has ties to the Bahamas. His sister-in-law and her family are from the area and experienced loss during Hurricane Dorian. As a former military contractor who experienced 9/11 and helped survivors during Hurricane Katrina, Miller knows all too well that there is a need. “I am accountable for everything I know. It is my responsibility to inform the community,” he said.
Other efforts included a student using her undergraduate communications skills to create a flyer. Another student asked the Center for Student Engagement if FVSU undergraduates could receive community service hours for their donations. Undergraduates will now receive one service hour per pack of baby wipes and two hours per pack of diapers.
“In a span of two hours, we had a complete program put together,” Sharif-Harris said, smiling. “I was trying to tap into these skills with them so they can affect change. If they can do this for a one-time emergency, imagine what they can do for the Fort Valley community.”
The 20-year public health professional said she wanted her students to think about what they could do to make Fort Valley healthier and safer. “This was their initial eye opener,” she said.
Her students are now in the process of creating a formal MPH student organization to give back locally and globally. For their next project, the students plan to adopt five local families and provide them with a full meal for Thanksgiving. They are working with Habitat for Humanity to identify the families they will sponsor.
Furthermore, Sharif-Harris wants her students to explore health needs on campus such as obesity rates, sexually transmitted infections and student starving. Now into her second year teaching at FVSU, Sharif-Harris is ingrained in the Fort Valley community and FVSU campus. “Public health students are supposed to be your next generation of community leaders,” she said. “They need to understand that their leadership is needed in every sector of public health, beyond water and soil quality. That is the function of a public health professional. I am glad that they are listening and growing.”
For more information, contact Sharif-Harris at email@example.com or (478) 822-1028.