Emergency Desk Volunteer at Seattle's Union Gospel Mission:
As a student in SPH 491: Public Health Capstone, I am required to participate in service learning. I have chosen to volunteer at Seattle Union Gospel Mission (UGM), which is a men's shelter in Pioneer Square. Below is a reflection on how my experience at UGM has impacted my public health education.
Since I begun working at Union Gospel Mission (UGM) I have seen a lot of overlap between what I have spent the past few years learning about in the classroom play out in a real world example. In my public health courses we always seem to touch on the same core themes including social determinates of health, health disparities, risk factors for certain populations, etc. I feel like working at UGM I have seen many of these somewhat theoretical ideas play out in real life situations. When I talk to and interact with the guests at UGM occasionally they will tell me stories from their life. I have heard accounts of years in prison, of time spent in gangs, of battles with addiction, of surviving on the streets, of mental health crises, and of reoccurring health problems. In these conversations I find myself making connections to things I have learned about in class, specifically drawing parallels between risk factors and health outcomes. I believe that hearing many of their stories has made me more sensitive to and aware of the human side of public health. In class sometimes I feel like we are so focused on the macro, on the population wide approaches and indications, that I forget about who makes up the population: individuals. In class we often make statements comparing and contrasting populations, analyzing their risk factors, and making judgments and predictions about their health outcomes. However until I started working at UGM everything I have learned so far had felt somewhat abstract and disconnected.
I have found working at UGM to be both challenging, as well as an incredible growth experience. As a public health major, when I first signed up to volunteer at UGM I had in my mind that I would be approaching the public health issues facing the homeless population from an upstream perspective. I went in thinking about root causes of homelessness, such as poverty and structural barriers, of racism and lack of opportunity. However once I started working there I realized that the job we do as service learners is primarily a downstream approach to providing services to the homeless population in Seattle. Often while working at UGM I feel like we provide a Band-Aid solution when handing out clothes, providing meals, and giving shelter to those in need. Although I wholeheartedly believe this type of solution is necessary and meaningful, it also leaves me wondering what else could be done to remedy the problem for people before they ended up needing services from UGM. Although as service learners this quarter we worked solely at the Welcome Center, I am interested in learning more, and perhaps becoming involved in the addiction recovery program, which seems to me like a solution that addresses issues at a slightly more upstream level. In our orientation to UGM our supervisor informed us that during our first quarter we would be working at the Welcome Center, but during our second quarter we would have the opportunity to work on a variety different projects for the organization instead. I am looking forward to seeing what opportunities will be available and how I can continue to turn what I have learned in my public health classes into practical applications.