Last summer, GCMS Middle School student Shelbie Butler had the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a surgeon, her career goal, at Gibson Area Hospital and Health Services’ weeklong Camp Gibson. Now thanks to its recent designation as the East Central Illinois Area Health Education Center (AHEC), GAHHS will be able to offer students across Central Illinois opportunities to explore health careers.
The goal of the center is to improve access to and quality of care for the underserved through the education of current health professionals, by promoting rural health careers to students kindergarten through college and by increasing community and public health promotion activities.
GAHHS’s center will serve 11 counties—Kankakee, Livingston, Ford, Iroquois, Champaign, Vermilion, Douglas, Edgar, Coles, Cumberland and Clark—and the center will provide many benefits to residents of those counties, said Eileen Woolums, GAHHS community education coordinator and director of the East Central Illinois AHEC.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to not only help current health professionals in rural communities but to promote health careers as well,” Woolums said. “And, we will be able to do more health education, which is very important.”
Before its designation, GAHHS had already implemented a number of programs in the local community, like Camp Gibson, and now they will assist other communities in implementing their programs.
“We can use the funding to help other facilities do the same thing,” Woolums said. “We are already helping one of the southern counties start their own camp and will support them with funding to get started.”
While Butler's career goal remained the same after the camp, many of the other students who participated in the camp's hands-on activities changed their career goals, after learning about the vast range of occupations available in health care, which range from radiology to information technology.
“We hope they leave camp with an interest in some aspect of health care,” said Woolums of the camp which will be offered again this summer. “Our needs for health care professionals will continue to grow, especially in rural areas like ours.”
Developing those already interested in a health career will also be a goal of the center. GAHHS plans to expand its preceptorship program, which is a mentoring program for aspiring health professionals, and will develop new programs like job shadowing.
“Pre-med or pre-pharmacy students will be able to come here to experience those occupations in a rural facility,” Woolums said. “They won’t just go follow a person in their field but also other areas like physical therapy, to get an idea of how rural health care works.”
That experience in a rural health care setting is critical, said Woolums, because rural professionals, such as pharmacists, often have a different role than they would in a larger hospital.
“They are just so much more involved in a rural hospital,” Woolums said. “Hopefully these programs get them excited about rural health care and bring them back here to work someday.”
Community health activities will also be important. Besides partnering with critical access hospitals, Woolums said the center will partner with health departments and other organizations like the University of Illinois Extension to provide community health programs, such as the “Brain Matters” series offered last year.
“Many organizations already have these programs in place, so we can help them promote what they are doing,” Woolums said.
By partnering with other organizations, GAHHS will be able to offer programs not typically offered in a rural area.
Woolums and her staff are also working on a website for the center, which will include information for students, including links to explore health careers, college prep sites, scholarships, volunteer resources and academic health programs in Illinois.
Information for current health care professionals will include opportunities for continuing education and links to job openings.
The website will also provide information on community resources.
“We have a lot of resources available, but many people who need them don’t know they are available,” Woolums said.
The work is just starting and Woolums said there is much to be done.
“We are working hard on this, and it will take a while to get it all up and going,” she said.
The East Central Illinois AHEC and the Ford County Public Health Department will present a six-week course on caring for an adult loved one or a special needs child.
The course will be offered 9:30 to 11 a.m. six consecutive Thursdays, April 23 through May 28, at the GAH Community Services Center, 209 E. 9th St., Gibson City.
“Taking Care of You: Powerful Tools for the Caregiver,” will include such topics as how to care for yourself with skills to help you communicate with others; how to identify and reduce stress; how to handle difficult situations, emotions and decisions with confidence; and how to use local resources for support.
There is no charge for the program. To register, call 217-784-4076 by April 16.