Jerry Gravat has gray hair, but he holds on to a dream he has cherished since he was much younger.
Now 43 and enrolled in The W's associate of science in nursing program, Gravat says "I've known since I was 18 that I wanted to be a nurse." He saw his mom battle cancer, and Gravat said he felt a calling to seek his lifelong goal. "Taking care of people is in my heart."
He commutes from Houston, nearly 60 miles away, to make his dream a reality. Committed to his academic preparation, he also maintains a commitment to put service into action.
That's why you'll often find him at Trinity Place in Columbus, a residential community for senior adults. While he checks blood pressure and overall well-being, he jokes with residents and gets to know them. "I love being able to talk to the residents," he says. "They have a lot more life experience than I do. It's not all about the medical need. It's also about the daily interaction and conversation."
As a student, Gravat reflects an equally strong commitment within the College of Nursing and Speech-Language Pathology to serve communities and the region, said Dr. Karen Nabors, associate professor in the associate of science in nursing program.
"Our students annually are part of a health fair at Trinity, usually spending about five hours with the residents," she explained. "We cover topics such as safety, blood pressure, relaxation techniques to improve sleep, and the risks and benefits of alternative therapies."
Residents love the interaction, she says. "We suggest ways to take care of any health deficits, but an important part of our being there is the socialization. It's all about adding to quality of life."
ASN students also annually participate in a health fair at Franklin Academy, a magnet school in Columbus. "We usually see about 400 students," Nabors said. Topics include nutrition, safety, hygiene, dental care, and exercise, she said. "We usually do this in the spring, and our efforts are all about reinforcing health and wellness, which is a mission of Franklin Academy."
Another ASN student group has for three years provided a health fair at Traceway Retirement Community in Tupelo. "It's a voluntary program for the residents, with about 48 of our students participating," explained Mary Helen Ruffin, instructor in the ASN program.
Typically held in the fall, the fair includes student-led stations that provide blood pressure screenings, as well as education on hypertension. Students also provide information on preventing falls, vaccinations, exercise management, and the importance of hydration, Ruffin said.
"We teach residents how they can exercise using items around the home, and we provide resistance bands they can use," Ruffin said. "Perhaps the biggest surprise to participants are some of the at-home risks. We talk about area rugs, electrical outlets, and nonstick mats in the bathtub, as examples."
Ruffin said ASN students also have worked with Monroe County Schools in providing a pediatric clinic for middle school students. In collaboration with Monroe County, W students provided information on sun safety, MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria), the hidden dangers of energy drinks, and other topics. Students also have worked with Access Family Health Services in Smithville to provide glucose testing, blood pressure screenings, and vision tests to approximately 500 school-age youth.
Bachelor of Science in nursing students also are active in community projects that involve all ages around the region. For the past two years, they collaborated with Pontotoc County United Way and numerous other county stakeholders during its annual backpack project.
"United Way fills approximately 550 backpacks for K-6 grade students, and we participate by offering training on a variety of topics," explained Tammie McCoy, chair of the BSN program. Approximately 50 members of the BSN junior class and faculty were on hand when more than 1,500 students, parents and educators arrived to collect and help distribute the backpacks.
"We provided training on topics that included fire safety, nutrition, dental hygiene and proper medication dosing, among others," McCoy said. The Mississippi Forestry Commission supported the educational efforts by providing kerchiefs with health activities illustrated on them. "The kids and 'adult' kids alike enjoyed the kerchiefs," she said. This fall, BSN students will be collecting age-appropriate books and personal items for youngsters at Louisville's Diamond Grove, a long-term residential treatment center for children and adolescents. "Students not only are helping residents but also are gaining valuable clinical experience," McCoy said.
Additionally, students will be part of the health fair at North Pontotoc Attendance Center, a BSN project for nearly a decade. "We help check blood pressure along with height and weight as well as provide information about diet, handwashing and dental health for almost 1,000 students," McCoy explained.
Tupelo RN to BSN nursing students, under the leadership of emerita faculty Dr. Linda Cox, last summer collected about $2,500 to support Operation Back to School in Alcorn County. Their resources helped provide non-perishable food, clothing, and school supplies for students returning to the classroom.
These activities, part of the more than 124,000 service hours recorded by the college last year, illustrate the regional stewardship the faculty pride themselves on. Student Jerry Gravat sums it up in his own experience.
"I've learned many lessons at Trinity Place," he said.
"Developing the skills of interaction and encountering new situations are skills that will benefit my nursing career." But just as important to him are other intangibles he gains from the experience. "I love being able to say something to brighten someone's day. Showing compassion and letting the residents know I love them even though I don't know them is important. This is the greatest lesson I've learned."
Communication specialist Tyler Wheat contributed to this story.