The Student Wellness Initiative Toward Community Health (SWITCH) offers just that. SWITCH is a non-profit organization created by students, run by students, primarily those in the Health Sciences.
“Volunteering at SWITCH is an invaluable learning experience for students,” said SWITCH Executive Director Elaine Weisgerber. “For many, SWITCH provides an initial exposure to working with marginalized populations and vulnerable individuals within the city. In the clinic, students are immersed in an interdisciplinary model of patient care that is difficult to teach in the classroom and is becoming an increasingly valuable piece of education for several post-secondary institutions, including the U of S.”
SWITCH volunteers spend their time working on either the Outreach or Clinical team. The Outreach team prepares and serves food, assists with programing and provides childcare for those visiting the clinic. The Clinical team is comprised of many health professionals, working together on each case that enters the clinic. Students volunteer with a doctor or nurse practitioner, cultural support worker, nutrition supervisor, receptionist or other healthcare mentor.
There’s no better way to get a feel for the experience, then hearing from student volunteers themselves. We have caught up with two College of Nursing volunteers, 4th year student Lauren Wahler and 2nd year student, Victoria Krishan. Here’s what they had to say.
How long have you been volunteering with SWITCH?
Lauren: I have been involved with SWITCH for little over two years now, since I entered the U of S Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in 2012.
Victoria: I have been volunteering for two years.
How did you get involved with SWITCH?
Lauren: A SWITCH representative gave a presentation at the nursing student orientation. What SWITCH was doing really resonated with me, so I immediately signed up and haven’t looked back since.
Victoria: I heard about SWITCH through some of my classmates while I was in Arts and Science. I thought it would be beneficial to my career, so I signed up.
How many students are there currently working with SWITCH, either in a volunteer capacity or in a clinical placement?
Lauren: Right now, there are approximately 400 student volunteers from multiple institutions in Saskatoon. Approximately 10 - 25 volunteers work on each shift, including those working as outreach volunteers and those on the clinical team.
How is SWITCH funded?
Lauren: SWITCH is a registered charity and non-profit organization. The clinic is primarily funded with grants, which is an issue because only 15% of the operating budget is secure year to year. In November, the program hours were reduced due to financial constraints. For this reason, I strongly encourage people to donate if possible, attend the annual charity breakfast, etc. We need help from the community to keep this great thing going!
What do you enjoy most about your time spent with SWITCH?
Lauren: Spending time with the people there, both clients and volunteers. I have had the privilege of learning from so many valuable interdisciplinary mentors, who have had an immense impact on how I practice. I have learned so much about other disciplines, what they do and how they practice. I believe SWITCH is extremely beneficial to students because of the interdisciplinary nature of how the clinical side is run.
Victoria: I enjoy visiting with the clients and hearing their stories. Although this can be challenging at times, it has made me a more open-minded and empathetic person. I enjoy seeing the interprofessional collaboration between health care professionals in action and have learned this collaboration is essential to better address the social determinants of health. Most importantly, I love seeing the difference SWITCH makes in the lives of the clients. Many clients come to SWITCH and gain access to services they cannot get anywhere else. SWITCH acts as a support system for so many members of the community and I am extremely happy to be a part of that.
What are some activities volunteers can expect to do with SWITCH?
Lauren: I work primarily on the Clinical team, so I see patients - take their history, do relevant assessments, present the case and work with mentors and other clinical team members to develop a plan for the client.
Victoria: I volunteer on the Outreach team, where I do tasks such as helping prepare and serve food, visiting with clients in the waiting room, helping out with childcare and assisting with social programming. I am also a shift supervisor, which involves guiding the team of volunteers and doing tasks, such as patient intakes and lab work. There are also a variety of positions available on the board of directors for those who are interested; I currently hold the secretary position.
Is there anything else you would like to tell someone who is considering volunteering with or donating to SWITCH?
Lauren: I truly believe SWITCH has positively impacted the way I practice as a nursing student. I feel I have learned more about communicating with clients, the social determinants of health and how to manage complex cases at SWITCH, in comparison to any other clinical experience. Volunteering here as a nursing student is a great way to understand where patients that you will meet in the hospital are coming from and the challenges they face in everyday life before they end up in those acute situations. Working at SWITCH has given me the ability to better understand those who live in the core communities and the challenges they face, whether it be lack of housing, food security, addictions, HIV or mental health issues. By getting first-hand experience working with clients at SWITCH, students are able to develop an understanding and confidence for working with people from complex backgrounds; I feel I have benefitted immensely from my experiences at SWITCH and encourage everyone to volunteer and/or donate to this wonderful initiative.
Victoria: Volunteering at SWITCH has really opened my eyes to the disparities that exist in Saskatoon. SWITCH has given me the opportunity to witness inequality first-hand and to gain insight about many different cultures and ways of life. As a result of my time spent at SWITCH, I now feel I have a better understanding and increased appreciation of the unique socio-cultural position of our clients and future patients when I become a Registered Nurse.
SWITCH’s mission states All residents of Saskatoon have equal access to healthcare, nutrition, education and employability skills to better arm them with tools to create opportunities for themselves. Its’ holistic approach to health is beneficial for the community, as well as post-secondary students from a variety of disciplines. “In 2013, over 8,900 people accessed our services with 800 students volunteering their time,” said Weisgerber. “Ultimately, SWITCH plays an important role in enhancing the training of future professionals in health related fields, while striving to improve the health, education and skills of all residents of Saskatoon with the goal of achieving a lasting positive change for everyone involved.”
SWITCH is the only after-hours non-urgent medical clinic in its area, while serving as a hub for service and support networks for its clients. SWITCH is operated out of the Westside Community Clinic located at 1528 20th Street, Saskatoon. The clinic is open Mondays and Wednesdays. Visit their website for more information on volunteering, donating, becoming a mentor and so much more!