Former participants in the HELI program are still making their mark in health care at UMMC. Spending some time with their mentor, Dr. Juanyce Taylor, are, from left, Justin Johnson, a member of HELI’s third cohort; Will Lindsey, a member of HELI’s first cohort; Andre Funches, a member of HELI’s first cohort; and Geoffrey Pratt, a member of HELI’s third cohort.
Former participants in the HELI program are still making their mark in health care at UMMC. Spending some time with their mentor, Dr. Juanyce Taylor, are, from left, Justin Johnson, a member of HELI’s third cohort; Will Lindsey, a member of HELI’s first cohort; Andre Funches, a member of HELI’s first cohort; and Geoffrey Pratt, a member of HELI’s third cohort.
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Emerging leaders represent health equity program's true legacy

Published on Thursday, November 14, 2019

By: Bruce Coleman

A program designed to increase the involvement of males of color in the health professions championed by Dr. Juanyce Taylor, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is continuing to pay dividends even after its four-year term has expired.

Funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation as a $150,000 equitable communities grant to UMMC from April 1, 2013 through Dec. 31, 2017, the Health Equity and Leadership Initiative sought to improve racial and ethnic disparities in the health care profession and education.

Taylor initially answered the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s call for proposals seeking initiatives to bolster black male participation in the health sciences when she was a faculty member in UMMC’s School of Health Related Professions.

“I happened to be working with data at the institution at the time and I noticed black males were particularly underrepresented – less than one percent of our student population at UMMC was African-American males,” Taylor said. “So I responded to the call for proposals.”

Shortly after receiving the grant, the Association of American Medical Colleges underscored the need for enhanced interest among African-American males in medicine when the organization issued the report, “Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine.” Among other findings, the article indicated more black males per capita had been enrolled in medical school in 1973 than in 2014, the year the report was published.

Two years after funding for the HELI program expired, Taylor still keeps track of its participants.

“A lot of medical schools started initiatives, such as ‘Black Men in White Coats,’ to support African-American men in pursuing careers in medicine,” Taylor said. “My program was specific to the School of Health Related Professions, but we did have interest and participation from other areas of health care.”

Each of the HELI participants was a student from a Mississippi community college. After an initial symposium, the HELI program consisted of monthly leadership-training meetings in which participants received access to SHRP’s various departmental curriculum. The HELI participants interacted with SHRP faculty and became fully immersed in the culture and environment of the state’s largest academic health center.

According to Taylor, of the 15 young men who participated in the HELI program, all proceeded to earn at least an associate’s degree and most are either in the health care workforce or in professional school. Two are enrolled in a degree program in SHRP, two more are employed at UMMC and two others are still in the health career “pipeline” – one at Jackson State University and the other at Mississippi State University – with the goal of attending medical school at UMMC. Four former HELI participants are registered nurses, including one who is in the armed forces, and another is an emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighter.

The most impressive statistic? Almost two years after the program’s conclusion, Taylor is still involved with each participant, encouraging him, supporting him, challenging him.

“I know where they are, I talk with them, I mentor them in their undergraduate and professional efforts,” Taylor said. “It’s just inspiring for me to see these young people live out their dreams, getting to support their professional development.

“I even hear from their parents and families quite often. They’re always thanking me for supporting their child. That means the world to me. We welcomed their children into the UMMC family early in their academic careers and they trusted us to help them get where they wanted to be. I think that’s why they’ve been so successful today.”

The importance of the HELI program as a “pipeline” for males of color into the health professional workforce could not be overstated. While many young black males in Mississippi may have an interest in science or health care, Taylor said a majority of them may not be fully aware of their career options.

Geoffrey Pratt, a first-year physical therapy student in SHRP, was a member of the HELI program’s third cohort. After graduating from Northeast Mississippi Community College, Pratt earned a degree in kinesiology at Mississippi State University.

He credited the HELI program for helping define his collegiate pathway.

Portrait of Geoffrey Pratt

“Not everybody knows the opportunities they have when they’re going through college,” Pratt said. “They don’t know the options they have as far as career choices. HELI’s hands-on exposure introduced us to different health care professions, from nurses to doctors to physical therapists and others.

“We had (job) shadowing opportunities and even had the privilege of going to medical conferences and other networking opportunities, so when it came closer to time for us to decide what we wanted to study, we were able to know how to apply to programs successfully.”

In Justin Johnson’s case, the HELI program changed his entire career plan. A biology major when he joined the program’s third cohort, he initially had his sights set on majoring in pre-med. After becoming familiar with the medical laboratory sciences profession through HELI, he found a new calling. A Coahoma Community College and Alcorn State University graduate, Johnson is now in SHRP’s MLS program.

Portrait of Justin Johnson

“The HELI program wasn’t just geared toward the mainstream professions like medicine and nursing; we learned about all the other professions that went on behind the scenes,” Johnson said. “That’s what opened my eyes and brought up all my options. Being introduced to MLS through the HELI program changed my mind.

“I’m more of an introvert and I like working in the lab. (Switching to MLS) was an opportunity to work in a lab all the time.”

Taylor said the manner in which SHRP faculty and students embraced HELI had a dramatic effect on the participants. The HELI students said they were impressed by how readily the SHRP faculty were willing to share their knowledge and passion for their given career pursuits.

“Dr. Jessica Bailey (SHRP dean) never missed an opportunity to be with the HELI students when they were on campus,” Taylor said. “To have these young men know they had a dean call them by their first names and enjoy speaking to them was very reassuring.

“To have SHRP faculty take a special interest in them, to welcome them, to help make them feel a part of the school – and to have faculty and staff call them by name – it was very much like a family, a warm, welcoming environment.”

Will Lindsey of Jackson, a member of the first HELI cohort, received his master’s in nuclear medicine technology at UMMC. He is working as a nuclear medicine technologist at four different facilities while preparing to complete necessary prerequisite courses to apply for medical school at the Medical Center.

A student at Hinds Community College during his time in HELI, Lindsey had the opportunity to meet his future NMT faculty members in SHRP.

Portrait of Will Lindsey

“HELI allowed me to learn about the program I pursued later – the nuclear medicine program,” he said. “In that aspect, it was vital. I’m where I am today because of that. It started me on the pathway I’m on today, which is medical school.

“It gave me the opportunity to build my resume, learn more about the health care field, the medical field, and get more experience with the medical field so I can pursue my ultimate goal of being a physician.”

Perhaps the secret to the short-term program’s long-term effectiveness lies in camaraderie. Taylor isn’t the only one charting each participant’s career path – for several years now, they’ve each checking up on one another.

“They all still talk to each other,” Taylor said. “They’ve formed a kind of brotherhood. They support each other. That’s also something that’s been very special.”

“I love those guys to death,” Lindsey said. “It’s amazing to be around them; they’re very inspirational, very helpful. We’ve grown to be very good friends, always trying to push each other to do better.

“If we can help each other out in any kind of way, we will.”

That camaraderie is not limited to the participants; they each maintain a connection to Taylor in her role as mentor.

“You know she’s always there for you when you need her,” Lindsey said. “There’s never a hesitancy to reach out to her. She’s always said if we ever need anything, if we have a question or would like to meet with somebody at UMMC or pursue any shadowing opportunities, she would be there.”

“During the program, she became like a second mother to us,” Johnson said. “She’s always checking in on us. She was really invested in the program and that, in turn, upped our motivation and we became invested, too.”

At least one critical component of the program has taken root: As the HELI participants have made their way into the world of health care, they’ve doubtlessly inspired continued interest in the health care professions by other minority males.

“I imagined that the HELI participants would end up being peer mentors, whether formally or informally, for other students like them,” Taylor said. “It raises awareness among black males that their peers have actually gained careers in health care, so they can accomplish that, too.”

Like Lindsey, Andre Funches of Jackson was in the first HELI cohort. At the time, he was attending Meridian Community College. After graduating from Meridian CC, he attended Southern University at New Orleans on a basketball scholarship, earned his degree in biology and returned to UMMC as a hospital technician in respiratory therapy.

Portrait of Andre Funches

“When I joined the first cohort, I really didn’t know as much about UMMC,” Funches said. “It was a great opportunity to meet people here, an opportunity to learn about health care career options.

“The people here are family-oriented. They showed they care, they showed love.”

It’s a feeling Funches would like to pass along to other young African-American males interested in a health-care career but not sure how to take that initial step.

“Most definitely, I’d like to help anybody I can,” he said. “It’s important to me. For some kids, they only see what they see on the street. You can basically show them something different, something better than they’re normally used to – a career in health care.

“And they can get an education on top of that, too.”

The need for another program similar to HELI is apparent by the response Taylor received when her initial call for participants was distributed among community colleges throughout the state.

“I had more interest than I could support (with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant),” Taylor said. “The program was for community college students only, but I received a lot of inquiries about how other college students could enroll. Unfortunately, they were not eligible because they were at four-year institutions.

“But if I had the means to support them, I would have supported every last one of them as well.”

Unlike most of the HELI participants, Lindsey had grown up in Jackson and was very familiar with the Medical Center. His mother had been a nurse at UMMC, and his sister had been a patient at Batson Children’s Hospital, where he had been a child life volunteer, reading to Batson patients and playing video games and board games with them.

Therefore, Lindsey said he felt he had a “leg up” on his HELI peers when it came to considering a career in health care.

“For the others, it was like a stepping stone, helping them get to where they felt like they belonged (in health care),” he said. “African-American males who may be from lower-income backgrounds or maybe from lower-graded schools need to see this, to see more African-American males who are successful in the health care field or any other fields they may be interested in.

“A couple of the guys who weren’t considering the medical field at any point but were interested in what the HELI program had to offer learned that this is truly where they needed to be – the health care field ended up being where they wanted to be. It provided a route to where they could become successful in life.”

In this archived photo, members of HELI’s first cohort, including Lindsey and Funches, pause between sessions during the early days of the program.
In this archived photo, members of HELI’s first cohort, including Lindsey, center, and Funches, right, pause between sessions during the early days of the program.

While the HELI program no longer exists, Taylor said the need to encourage African-American men to pursue careers in the health sciences remains, especially in Mississippi.

“We have to be intentional about this effort,” she said. “If we want to improve health outcomes, we need to look at those populations that are at greater risk. In a state like Mississippi, there should be no second thought – it really is our obligation to think about this population in a more intentional way.

“We definitely need more African-American male mentors to support students who want to go into health care, because once these students are exposed to it, they will work to improve health outcomes. That’s what the literature tells us.”

Pratt said the HELI program had a monumental impact in his decision to pursue a health care career.

“I don’t believe I would have been accepted into any (health care) program without the exposure to the HELI program,” he said. “Just the experiences I have had with the people I’ve met through that program has pushed me to stay motivated.

“(The HELI program) was the first time I had gotten together with people who had the same mindset that I have. It’s an accountability thing – if you want to keep up with a group like that, you’ve got to keep pushing.”

Johnson said the program helped encourage him in ways that may not be easy to express.

“Going to UMMC, honestly, you don’t see many people like me,” he said. “Being in MLS, it’s very diverse, but there are still only two African-American males in the program.

“Having a program like HELI can open the door to so many others who may have a lack of resources. Health care may be their passion, and they don’t even know it yet. It could open the door to people in small towns who may not know what their opportunities are.”

Taylor said programs like HELI can help lead the way to creating a more representative health care workforce.

“I think pipelines, real pipelines, are important,” Taylor said. “These are true success stories. Even though it was a small program, HELI accomplished what it set out to do. That, to me, is a success story.”