Maria Restuccio had never heard of a Splash Park before she researched others in North Carolina and across the country. By the time she completed her investigation, however, she had become Impact Alamance’s resident expert on splash park design, costs, features, and operations. This was just one of many tasks Maria was assigned during her yearlong tenure with Impact Alamance as an Elon-Alamance Health Partners graduate fellow.
Elon-Alamance Health Partners (EAHP), a post-graduate service year program launched in March 2015, was developed by Elon University in collaboration with four local agencies all working on community health issues. The program is modeled after The Franklin Project, a national initiative of the Aspen Institute that provides a full-year service learning opportunity for young professionals who want to make a difference in their communities while developing leadership skills.
Jointly funded by Elon University and the Cone Health system, Elon’s Student Professional Development Center administers EAHP. Center Executive Director Tom Brinkley said that the concept arose when Elon’s President, Leo M. Lambert, attended an Aspen Institute summit and was inspired by the idea of a gap year of community service for recent college graduates. The program’s framework was developed by a steering committee with representatives from both the University and the community, including four health agencies who now host the EAHP fellows. These include the Alamance County Health Department, Healthy Alamance, Alamance Regional Medical Center, and Impact Alamance. A staff person at each host agency serves as a supervisor and mentor for an EAHP fellow.
Maria Restuccio and her colleagues, Hannah Allen, Catherine Palmer, and Shelby Smith—all emerging young leaders and members of the first cohort of this experiential university-community program—have recently completed their community service year as EAHP fellows. I have had the privilege of working most closely with Maria through her work with the Alamance Wellness Collaborative.
In Maria’s role as a junior program officer for the foundation, she has not only developed leadership skills, but has also added invaluable staff capacity. Maria indicated that while some of her leadership training was structured through the EAHP program, much of what she has learned was acquired more informally in her day-to-day work under Program Director Marcy Green’s guidance and mentorship. Marcy commented, “Serving as a mentor to Maria has also been a positive learning experience for me. It’s a great feeling to know that you are contributing to a young professional’s career path, and it’s fun and interesting to see how their perspectives and skill sets change throughout their year of learning.”
In addition to providing each EAHP fellow with a modest stipend and housing, a key component of the service-learning program is a community retention incentive. If the fellows choose to work in Alamance County or a neighboring county at the end of their fellowship, they receive a $3,000 bonus. The program and incentive seem to have worked: while all four EAHP fellows were out-of-state students with no previous North Carolina connections, half have decided to stay in the area.
The architects of this innovative community service-learning program have not only helped develop the leadership skills of four young professionals, but they have also increased community capacity and strengthened the area’s healthy community workforce. Thanks to the numerous benefits of this experiential partnership, Alamance County’s future is looking brighter than ever.