Five people pose for a photo

Master’s Students Find Community at Staten Island Health Fair

January 26, 2024

A pair of first-year Columbia Mailman master’s students volunteered at a recent health fair in Staten Island. As much as they gave to the event, they also got back. The experience gave them a glimpse into how health fairs can be a powerful tool for supporting community health.

The January 13 Bridging the Gap: Staten Island Health Fair was organized by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to help to improve health and reduce inequities in Stapleton, a predominantly low-income community of color. Two dozen city agencies, nonprofits, and community groups offered attendees a bevy of free services—vaccinations, screenings for cardiovascular disease and HIV, dental exams, and even free plant-based food from a local vendor. 

Kayla Diggs and Brian T. Shaw, both MPH students in Sociomedical Scienceshelped to set up and coordinate the event at the neighborhood’s Central Family Life Center. They organized tabling locations, checked in participating organizations and attendees, and answered attendees’ questions. They also got the chance to meet representatives from participating organizations to understand the kind of services they provide.

Shaw says the experience was energizing and inspiring. “It seemed like a never-ending caravan of needed and willing service providers. I was overjoyed to see as much,” he says, adding that he recognized in the collective enterprise a tapestry of supportive, relationships with deep roots. “I witnessed compassion that saturated every inch of the Family Center. Generations of associations between and among organizations were made known. I learned of organizationsintersectionality and how collaborations were built from certain people having worked for certain organizations and maintained relationships thereafter. The event was a testament to what purposeful community-based collaborations can give rise to.”

For her part, Diggs reflects on the magic formula that makes health fairs successful. Even organizations with deep community ties were able to connect with new people and expand their reach—a feat made possible through the principle of one-stop shopping; for example, someone who came to get their blood pressure checked might also decide to get a COVID vaccine. “This [beneficial dynamic] demonstrates to me the importance of investment in horizontal approaches to addressing the needs of this multidimensional community,” she says, adding, “My research and civic engagement focus is primarily adolescents and youth-focused, but I saw the health fair as an opportunity to engage with a different community.”

The duo’s participation in the health fair happened under the auspices of CIPHER (Citizens’ Public Health Literacy), an organization created in Professor Kim Hopper’s Social and Economic Determinants of Health course in 2021. CIPHER aims to uplift New York City communities and empower individuals by decoding public health concepts through community-informed curriculum and health messaging, and through direct support for community organizations.

Diggs is no stranger to Staten Island. She earned B.S. in Chemistry with a minor in Cultural Competency in Allied Health in 2020 from Wagner College in the borough’s Grymes Hill neighborhood. Before enrolling at Columbia Mailman, she worked as a researcher at Columbia Nursing, where she focused on an asthma intervention for urban teens. At Columbia Mailman, she serves as community relations chair for the Black and Latino Student Caucus. Shaw earned a B.S. in Social Studies from Bard College and a Master of Professional Studies from the New York Theological Seminary. Subsequently, he worked for the Center for Community Alternatives to secure employment for previously incarcerated individuals. At Columbia Mailman, he is active with numerous student organizations and community outreach projects, including a technology training program for older adults.

Also attending the health fair was Heather Butts, associate professor of health policy and management. Her organization H.E.A.L.T.H for Youths, which focuses on college readiness and preparation, and life-skills training for youth, was on its planning committee. The organization brought a small free library which they donated to the Central Family Life Center. They also brought clementines, as part of the Clementine Collective initiative which began with a group of students in Professor Butts’ Mailman Integration of Science and Practice class in 2020. The initiative brings fresh produce and vegetables to corner stores, bodegas, and other public spaces for communities in need.

Says Butts: “I am very proud of Kayla Diggs and Brian Shaw for their willingness to bring this event to fruition and want to thank Columbia Mailman and CIPHER for their assistance in this initiative. I look forward to working with Kayla and Brian in the future and supporting them grow as public health professionals. I also look forward to working with Mailman students and Staten Island community members to bring future public health initiatives to the Staten Island community.”

(Pictured above from left to right: Travis Carter, Staten Island Borough Advocate for the Office of the New York Public Advocate; Heather Butts; Kayla Diggs; Jumaane Williams; and Brian T. Shaw.)