Published October 22, 2018
For Jessica Kruger, public health education and community involvement go hand in hand. Students are expected to put in their time in the classroom each week, of course. But the commitment doesn’t end there, much like for student-athletes, who don’t simply call it a week when the game’s over.
There’s training and practice to be done to prepare for the moments that matter. For Kruger’s public health students, that training happens on weekends and weeknights, and it occurs mostly on Buffalo’s East Side, a community where the need for health care services is the greatest.
Every Wednesday night, Kruger takes a group of students to the Lighthouse Free Medical Clinic on William Street. Run by students from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, the nonprofit, drop-in clinic provides free, routine health care and preventive services to uninsured patients on the East Side.
The clinic allows Kruger’s students — who are the patients’ first point of contact when they come to the clinic — an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-world health care setting.
Kruger’s research centers mostly on consumption and addictive behaviors — such as binge-watching Netflix or consuming drugs or alcohol — but she also pays careful attention to public health pedagogy. The community bike rides she’s organized this semester are one component of that.
“The East Side Bike Club is an amazing group of people who work to teach youth about biking and how to repair bikes. The group also encourage others to bike with us, which is promoting public health,” says Kruger, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions.
For Kruger, encouraging her students to be connected to the community is essential — particularly given their roles as students in public health and medicine.
“I think it’s important for students and faculty to connect with the community they work with,” she says. “You can’t fully understand community health issues without going out in the community and talking with and learning about what is actually happening on the ground in that community.”
In addition to encouraging her students to help in the community, Kruger invites them to explore Buffalo and see parts of the city they may not have been exposed to. So, each Saturday beginning in September, Kruger and a handful of her public health, medical and social work students leisurely strolled around Buffalo on bicycles.
The bike rides, which will continue through this month, begin at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where Kruger and the UB students meet up with members of the East Side Bike Club before setting off.
Alexandra Marrone, a second-year student in the Jacobs School and a student manager at the Lighthouse clinic, went on one of the rides recently and discovered a whole new appreciation for Buffalo’s East Side.
“A lot of our patients are from the East Side, and one of our main goals is to serve the people of that community in the best way possible,” Marrone says. “We are trying to work on building real relationships in the community, and we thought a great way to do that would be going on the bike ride. It also gave us a different perspective on the community we serve, actually biking around it while chatting with some residents.
Marrone, who grew up in Elma, says the East Side often gets a bad reputation, particularly among suburban residents who think it’s a dangerous place. “The more time I spend there, the more it is so clear to me that it is a vibrant community full of people that care about their neighborhood and want to support it and lift it up,” she says. “I wish there was more news about that side of the East Side because that’s the East Side that everyone should know.”
Kennedy George, a junior from Homer, New York, who’s in two of Kruger’s classes — Public Health 101 and Behavioral and Social Influences on Health — signed up for the rides to explore more areas of the city.
“As a student, I often feel holed up on campus and as if I have no connection to the community around me,” says George, a public health major. “I really enjoyed the ride. What struck me most was the incredibly tight bond within the East Side community. We saw a lot of community functions occurring and were met with so much friendliness from everyone within the community.”
On a recent Saturday, they checked out Chalkfest at Buffalo RiverWorks and took in the alluring aroma of Cheerios as they rolled past the General Mills factory nearby. They rode along Main Street and Broadway, and toured the Fruit Belt neighborhood adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
It was an eye-opening excursion for Kofi Biney, a fifth-year senior from the Bronx who’s still getting familiar with Buffalo. “The rides are a great experience for people who are curious about Buffalo. It was like a gold mine of sightseeing and information that I loved to receive,” says Biney.