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Albion College grad assumes VISTA role

Jan. 14, 2019


Albion College graduate remains in community to help pinpoint health-care needs

ALBION – Nikhil Patel intends to be a doctor someday. The Grosse Pointe native and Albion College graduate is sticking around to get a further education about people who have difficulty getting proper health care. And he wants to help.

Patel came to the resource-strapped town four years ago from his affluent hometown, his goal to eventually practice medicine in a field such as physiology or rheumatology. During his time in Albion, he recognized that not all communities have the same assets, nor all resident the same opportunities.

To help Albion shape new ones, Patel stayed on after his graduation in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biology as well as economics and management, and is continuing to live in Albion as part of the Build Albion AmeriCorps VISTA Initiative.

“Now I have different lenses of Albion as a student and as an outsider,” he said. “For example, there’s only one grocery store in town, and sometimes people have no access to transportation. My goal is to help eliminate those problems.”

AmeriCorps VISTA was launched in 1965 as Volunteers in Service to America, and continues to be a national service program aimed at alleviating poverty. Often viewed as a domestic version of the U.S. Peace Corps, the program assigns volunteers to specific grant-funded projects nationwide.

In August, Build Albion will conclude a three-year grant-funded mission to assist local non-profit agencies in expanding their capacity to serve the Albion community, said Cressie Vargo of Albion, who serves as the VISTA team leader.

VISTA workers serve for one year and receive a stipend and a financial education award. During the first months of Patel’s service, he worked in various capacities at Albion’s City Hall, but now is assisting a new project intended to make health care more accessible here.

That focus is Oaklawn Express Care – Albion, a new handicap-accessible facility that occupies the renovated ground floor of 302 N. Monroe St., which is the west side of Munger Place at 311 E. Michigan Ave. The clinic’s grand opening will be Feb. 11.

Patel is one of six workers connected to the VISTA initiative, some of whom come from states outside Michigan.

“Some people come here not truly understanding what poverty is,” Vargo said. “If we can empower them and give them more skills and knowledge, they can take that knowledge elsewhere. Meanwhile, we sometimes learn what they’ve brought in from other communities that have found good answers.”

Patel arrived with volunteer experience gained as a college student. Now his specific task is to assist the clinic project until the end of the mission in August. His pre-med concentration prepares him for a future as a physician, but for now he’s more of a communications manager, trying to determine Albion area residents’ health-care needs and relay that information to Oaklawn staff.

Patel is “another set of eyes and ears on the ground, working with the population that we’re trying to reach with this clinic,” according to Amy Reimann, Oaklawn’s development manager. “That has been one of the long-term goals established by the Calhoun County Community Health Needs Assessment.”

“It really was a happy coincidence,” Vargo said. “The stars aligned around this project so that this work will make Nihkil a better physician because of his experience here.”

The express-care clinic – a partnership between the college and Oaklawn – aims to improve access to medical services for Albion residents and local college students. That’s the kind of work Patel plans for himself in future years.

“I can have a more meaningful impact through this position,” he said. “They want VISTA to reach out and find out what services people want. You work 35 to 40 hours a week and you get an appreciation for the people and their needs – such as transportation and food access. It’s a real learning experience.”

“It’s our job to be a voice for the people with whom we work, and really making sure we can communicate a uniform message to the local population,” Vargo said. “Having the ability to get the information out accurately is important.”

The VISTA effort on the clinic’s behalf receives support from the Albion Health Care Alliance and the Battle Creek Community Foundation. Its supervisor is Andrew N. French, a special assistant to Albion College’s president, Mauri Ditzler.

“We’re very impressed with what VISTA has been doing,” said Richard C. Lindsey, Oaklawn’s executive director of legal and community affairs. “It’s a great collaboration between the college and Oaklawn to provide accessible health care in the community – and that’s our mission.

“We have to know what the community needs,” Lindsey said. “So it’s important for us to have someone like Nikhil on the ground, to gather information and send it to decision-makers. That’s something that we just haven’t been able to do consistently until now.

“When I saw Nikhil’s resume, I thought, ‘We’re going to be able to put someone in the middle of outreach,’” Lindsey said. “Now we’ve got a guy with Albion College connections, who’s pre-med and very involved with volunteers. He can tap into resources where we just haven’t been able to make those connections. We’re really excited and grateful for the opportunity.”

The project is an example of the type of work that VISTA aims to accomplish in Albion, Vargo said.

“One of the things we do as a whole team is try to bring these different organizations in the community together,” she said. “They may have the same goals or complementary goals, but rather than have everybody doing their own thing, we want to bring them together to enhance that communication among organizations.

“Nikhil is an integral part of that,” she said. “He has contacts based on his work as a student in Albion. Sometimes those communications that should happen just don’t, because everybody can’t be in the same place at once.”

“Having Nikhil on the team gives us some extra help when we need it most in opening the clinic space in Albion and serving more widely a new constituency in the Albion College students,” Reimann said.

“I admire the dedication of those serving in the AmeriCorps VISTA program,” Reimann added. “It is not an easy year for them in terms of financial independence, but the experience they gain and the contributions they make far exceed anything we could have done without them.”

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