Growing Healthier Futures
Students and faculty volunteer in Conetoe to help uplift the children of this rural eastern NC community
Story by Ryan McDaniel | photo courtesy of Jenny Koerner | Published June 27, 2023
On a grey, drizzly Thursday morning in June, second year PharmD student Jenny Koerner walked into the Conetoe Chapel in the small eastern North Carolina town of Conetoe. It was about 8:45am and it was one of her favorite parts of the day; the summer camp kids were finishing breakfast and rushing to greet her and eight other UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy students with enthusiastic hugs.
This was the final day of the School’s participation in a larger summer camp program that has been benefiting the tightly-knit community of Conetoe for years – the Conetoe Family Life Center’s Summer Camp. The camp focuses on uplifting the youth of the community by teaching life skills from nutrition education to etiquette to agricultural practices. Students from the Eshelman School of Pharmacy came to help out with four days of programming covering OTC medication safety, heart health, nutrition, vaping cessation, and mental health.
“It has brought so much joy to see the quiet kids open up as the day goes on,” Jenny reflects. “A lot of campers are very vulnerable and willing to share their stories with us.”
In all, four faculty and nine students led camp activities throughout the week. Student volunteers, organized through CAPS and SNPhA, worked with faculty for the month leading up to the camp to develop activities to engage with kids of all ages on health-related topics affecting them and their families.
Their time in Conetoe also included visits to local health centers, Edgecombe Health Department and Conetoe Family Health Center. Like many clinics in rural eastern North Carolina, these facilities create large impact with few resources. “The most powerful thing I noticed about these clinics is the strong sense of community,” observes Jenny. “They don’t have the resources Chapel Hill has, for example, but that sense of family, where everyone knows everyone, made up for it. It was very heartwarming.”
This connection to rural eastern NC communities is part of the grand vision of the leader of the Conetoe Family Life Center, Reverend Richard Joyner. When he first came to lead the congregation at Conetoe, he found himself presiding over too many funerals; his parishioners were dying from preventable diseases. “Diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy lifestyles…I had to do something,” he explains. That ‘something’ was to create a community garden and pair it with education and training on healthy nutrition and lifestyle choices.
Rev. Joyner partnered with the community youth to care for the garden (now many acres of land), and at the same time teach them through hands-on learning. While this is the first year the Eshelman School of Pharmacy has participated, UNC has helped with the Summer Camp before. “We’ve had a lot of students come and help, but the UNC students have been able to adapt to this challenging culture well,” he says. “The first time [UNC] came, I wanted those same students again, but the next year the students had the same capability—every year the students have been great.”
It has also been a great experience for the students. Jenny volunteered for the camp because she has only really experienced the Triangle area of North Carolina and wanted to get a better understanding for what the rest of the state is like. Her time in rural eastern NC has been fulfilling. “I have gained an abundance of knowledge I would not have gotten anywhere else,” she explains. “This experience has been so rewarding and I am forever grateful for the chance to spend time here.”
The School already plans to return to Conetoe to help with the camp again next year. Both faculty and students approached the planning process with an attitude that they would measure outcomes and adjust to improve for the future. Jenny, for one, is more than happy to return. “It is evident that the community was very grateful to us for coming out here,” she says. “We are hoping to set something up that would allow us to be there for a longer period of time and to contribute even more of a lasting effect.”
This story highlights the School’s commitment to improving health care in Eastern North Carolina. Read about other connections to Eastern North Carolina here.
To learn more about the Conetoe Family Life Center’s work in the community, click here.