Every Tuesday evening, the fellowship hall in Seattle’s St. John United Lutheran Church’s basement lives up to its name.
That’s when the Phinney Neighborhood Association offers a free meal to anyone in need. It’s also when a cadre of SPU nursing students practices community health.
The alliance between Seattle Pacific and the PNA began in February 2020, when SPU’s Carol McFarland, nursing instructor and assistant dean of strategic and community partnerships, brought a group of nursing students to visit PNA’s Hot Meal Program.
“It has blossomed into a regular routine of students staying with us for eight weeks and diving deep into building relationships, practicing community health, and bridging the gap between our diners and health care,” said Krissie Dillin, PNA’s program director.
“The nursing students enter the program with quite a bit of anxiety and wide-eyed curiosity,” she said. “They always seem eager to learn but lack experience and exposure. By the end of their clinical, they are all having meaningful conversations with participants, conducting blood pressure checks, assisting the dental clinic, providing foot care, and creating a positive exposure to health care for our participants.”
PNA has hosted these weekly dinners for more than two decades. With funding from the City of Seattle, smaller grants, and individual donations, they provide an average of 150 meals every week. To-go snacks, hygiene supplies, waterproof blankets, new socks and underwear, used clothing and shoes, and a weekly medical clinic are offered, all free of charge. PNA also contracts with Medical Teams International to provide a monthly mobile dental clinic for anyone in need.
“We serve our most marginalized neighbors because we have a sense of responsibility to take care of everyone who lives in our community. We are here to create a safe place for everyone to feel they are worthy,” Dillin said.
For Sofia Struiksma, a third-year SPU nursing student from Los Angeles, the community health practicum taps into her desire to be hands-on and help people. “I’ve felt reassurance that nursing is where God is calling me. I’ve learned to ask, ‘For my learning, can I take your blood pressure?’ They’re usually willing to help,” she said.
“This experience has made me more aware of the marginalized [people] in our community. I pass homeless encampments as I walk to work, and I recognize some of the residents from the dinners,” Struiksma said. “It’s also increased my therapeutic communication skills — how to converse with people sensitively, really listen, and let them know I care.”
“This clinical has taught me that to be a good nurse you have to listen and show empathy toward others in order to provide good care.” — Sophie Skinner, third-year nursing student
Dillin appreciates the students’ ability to engage with the diners in a way that is kind, generous, and genuine. “The diners actually look forward to the weekly visits from the students, because they are so willing to talk with them without judgment,” she said. “The students remember the diners’ names and details that have been shared.”
Sophie Skinner, a third-year nursing student from Temecula, California, has grown close to a mother and son who regularly attend the program. “This parent loves to share about her life and what has led her to where she is now. Talking to her has taught me that a mother will do anything for her child — she would go to any length to protect him and provide for him the best she can. She has faced so much adversity, pain, and trauma in her lifetime, yet she is still such a positive woman.
“This clinical has taught me that to be a good nurse you have to listen and show empathy toward others in order to provide good care. It has shown me that it is not always about providing medicine but being there to listen and provide support for people when they need it,” Skinner said. “This community has become so important to me. I have loved engaging with them every week because it has offered me insight on struggles they are facing and humbled me to become a better nurse.”
As the baked chicken, Swiss chard, and mashed potatoes are served to each table, third-year nursing student Carolina Chirinos chats in Spanish with 65-year-old Carlos, who emigrated from Cuba when he was 21. She laughs as he describes being a mujeriego (“a womanizer”) in his younger days.
Carlos has attended the dinners on and off for nine years. He drove a truck for 35 years until the work took its toll on his body, hurting his back and shoulder. In addition to the meal, he appreciates getting his blood pressure checked and receiving foot care. He rents a room nearby and is on Medicare, but says dental care is hard to access.
Chirinos, a first-generation college student whose father immigrated to the U.S. from South America and whose maternal grandparents are from Mexico, relates to the struggles of the poor and foreign-born.
“The goal is to learn how to connect and develop relationships with marginalized people, because once you [develop] rapport and trust with people, you are also more likely to be able to provide better care for them.” — Tara James
“I’ve gotten to know the guys here who speak Spanish. Many are immigrants. Most don’t have family nearby. They struggle to advocate for themselves because of the language barrier. It’s really touched me. I see a lot of health disparities,” she said. “There are also cultural barriers, such as how one defines pain and a distrust of health care providers.”
Chirinos is thinking of pursuing a community health career to help improve care. “My brother had chronic asthma. For some of my childhood, my family didn’t have health insurance so I spent hours at free clinics as a child. We’d have to drive far and wait forever.
“This has also given me a different perspective on the homeless population. Many people think, ‘They’re all on drugs,’ but I know from talking with them, they work hard. Sometimes life doesn’t work out. I didn’t expect so much conversation and to form relationships,” she said.
That’s music to the ears of Tara James, an adjunct nursing professor at SPU, who coordinates the community health practicum. “The goal is to learn how to connect and develop relationships with marginalized people because once you [develop] rapport and trust with people, you are also more likely to be able to provide better care for them. Patients are more likely to trust their nurse if they feel they have something in common, or they feel like the nurse cares.”
The “soft” skills of communication and empathy are strengthened as the students play checkers with the diners, make small talk over vegetable soup, and pass out books and rolls of toilet paper. Familiarity paves the way for blood pressure checks and blood glucose screenings, as well as encouragement to visit a doctor or dentist for follow-up.
PNA has contracted with Medical Teams International to bring its mobile dental van — a refurbished RV with two dental suites — to the church parking lot monthly. The clinic offers mainly extractions and cleanings while more complex procedures, such as root canals, are referred to brick-and-mortar dental clinics in case of complications and necessary follow-up care. On this particular day, the mobile clinic is staffed by two dental hygienists and Christopher Delecki, senior attending dentist at Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic.
“The student nurses do prescreening, which is very helpful,” said Delecki. “They take vitals, do COVID screenings, and record health histories. It’s good for them to understand the role oral health plays in overall health.”
Dillin is grateful for the role the nurses-in-training play in helping her clients know their value. She recalls a younger diner who attends the dinners sporadically due to addiction and homelessness.
“The nursing students were hosting a foot care clinic, and I coaxed him into having his feet cared for,” Dillin said. After his toenails were clipped and his feet were carefully washed, soothed with lotion, and covered in clean socks, she saw him leaving. “I asked him about his experience, and he said, ‘I’ve never had anything like that before. I don’t deserve it.’ I assured him he most definitely deserved it.
“Every person has a story. Each is someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother. They are real humans with real struggles and real feelings. They may have made bad choices, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy or deserving of love and respect.”
Colleen Steelquist is contributing editor of Response magazine and a communication specialist at Seattle Pacific since 2013. A former science writer and editor, she worked in cancer research for two decades.