AmeriCorps VISTA: Community Voices for Community Change
Yasmin Abdulaya is a member of the 2015-16 College Health Corps serving with the Cedar-Riverside Health Commons and Augsburg Campus Kitchen in Minneapolis. Her service has supported some deeply meaningful moments at the Cedar-Riverside Health Commons and contributed not only to the health and well-being of Health Commons participants but also her own personal growth. Read on to find out more!
Yasmin graduated from Augsburg College in 2015 with a degree in Biology and the desire to pursue a career in community health. During her undergraduate career she volunteered at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis and participated in service learning projects as an Interfaith Scholar, but always knew she wanted to serve the East African community near the Augsburg campus. Yasmin is a first generation immigrant from Ethiopia, which gives her special insight into issues specific to those marginalized communities. She has the ability, as she puts it, of “standing in between” different cultures and can use her skills to help everyone. When she heard of the service opportunity with the Cedar-Riverside Health Commons, she knew it was a perfect fit.
The Cedar-Riverside Health Commons was founded five years ago following a study of East African Cedar-Riverside residents. The study indicated that for many of the participants, largely from Somalia, their health had deteriorated drastically after their immigration to the United States. “[Many] live in high rise apartment buildings, which have limited space compared to what they’re used to back in their home countries,” explains Yasmin. “Also there was (and still is) a lack of trust with physicians because of language and cultural barriers, as well as differences in health care systems.” Following the telling results of the study, the Augsburg Nursing Department and Fairview Health Sciences partnered to establish the Health Commons in 2011.
The model of the Health Commons is intentionally non-medical. Services are offered based on what visitors say they need rather than “experts” prescribing medications or treatments. Nurses and volunteers cultivate a welcoming, culturally-sensitive environment where people are treated as “visitors”, not patients, and where there is time for everyone’s story. The majority of visitors return many times because of connections formed with volunteers. This unique approach to wellness was one of the main reasons that Yasmin was drawn to this project. “I love how the Health Commons empowers individuals to take charge of their health. The services that the Health Commons provides are very different than going to the hospital. It is a place that is very welcoming with an open space for everyone.” The Health Commons offers classes in nutrition and exercise, including swimming classes. One visitor mentions: “I participate in the swimming class every Friday. Prior to the civil war breaking out in Somalia I used to swim in the Indian Ocean but once the war started we had to flee. [Since] I moved to the United States I haven’t had the chance to swim freely and comfortably while accommodating my cultural and religious beliefs. The Health Commons has given me [the] chance to do what I love. Now I am also teaching my daughter how to swim. We both have an activity we can enjoy together.” Health Commons visitors also have access to garden plots in the Augsburg community garden, which has allowed many to rediscover their joy of gardening. As one gardener states: “I found out about the Cedar-Riverside Health Commons through my daughter. She has been volunteering [there] for about three years. When she told me about the Health Commons Garden Project I was very excited. Back in Somalia, I use to have a large garden plot, but when I moved to America I hadn’t had the opportunity to get space to garden. I joined the team right away. When I started gardening again this summer the feeling of joy and happiness came back to me. After harvesting the carrots, tomatoes, okra, and cabbage I planted I couldn’t want to make all the healthy, delicious meals. Now I can’t wait for the next growing season to come.”
Yasmin’s service with the Health Commons has expanded its organizational capacity through a multitude of ways. She recruits Augsburg student volunteers by speaking in classes, tabling at events, and promoting service learning projects on campus. She developed a volunteer sign up system with the software Volunteer Spot which is now used by students to sign for for every volunteer shift. Additionally she connects with Augsburg nursing students to schedule volunteer shifts with them. Yasmin has also helped coordinate multiple supply drives. These drives are vital to the success of the Health Commons because they bring in supplies for hygiene kits which are eventually distributed to Health Commons visitors. These kits are assembled by groups of student volunteers which Yasmin also helps to manage. Her service has also expanded the use of the Augsburg Community Garden by Health Commons visitors. After collaborating with on-campus entities, Yasmin has ensured that visitors now have access to both communal and individual plots in the upcoming growing season as opposed to only individual plots in 2015.
Yasmin says her parents are “very proud. I am living out my dream and thankful for this opportunity”. After her AmeriCorps service, Yasmin will attend medical school on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Throughout her studies she knows she will always carry her service experiences with her. She plans to use the skills she has gained through AmeriCorps VISTA in her practice as a health professional and focus her service on underrepresented communities. “It’s not just the community members who have been changed by their experience with the Health Commons. I have been changed, too. […] I’ve been equipped with tools to make a difference in the lives of many people. Most importantly, I’ve learned how relationship building has a big impact on gaining insight into the community.”