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‘Non-competitive’ collaboration

Bridging the gap between community and academics

Campus and Community

By Rochelle Baker

For more than 15 years, the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR) has welcomed expertise and insights from the community.

What it built through these research exchange groups generated new research, informed social policy and inspired award-winning programs.

“Complex problems require more than traditional academic expertise if we hope to aim for workable solutions,” said Elayne Greeley of the Community Employment Collaboration.

“The magic of these groups is in the way they bring a range of people together with a shared agenda while maintaining a non-competitive environment for collaboration. They build bridges between community partners and academics.”

Ms. Greeley sees the groups as smashing the silos that so often separate community, government, health care and universities.

Connecting to lived experiences

With more than 1,500 participants, the groups discuss many topics such as autism, Indigenous health, aging and the arts.

They link holders of community knowledge and lived experience with students, researchers, health-care workers and policy-makers.

For some, learning about community programs elsewhere generated new initiatives in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A St. John’s-based volunteer from the newly minted ElderDog N.L. Pawd, a volunteer program that supports pet ownership for older adults, walks a very appreciative elderly couple’s dog.

“I don’t think ElderDog would have gotten off the ground here without the Research Exchange Group on human-animal interaction and NLCAHR’s support getting those first meetings organized,” she said.

All about perspective

Participants of the groups bring a diversity of perspectives, ranging from the retired to new parents and everything in between.

Some have lived experience with mental health challenges or addictions. Everyone is recognized as an expert whose lived experience and community knowledge is essential to creating a healthier province with strong bonds between community and university.

Katrina Bajzak is a member of the group on ADHD and autism and who is raising a neurodivergent child.

“NLCAHR is certainly doing a fantastic job in seeking and sharing the latest research on autism and ADHD with our province,” she said. “It’s quite exceptional. I’m learning a lot.”

Brian Rees, program manager at Bell Island Sobriety, Housing and Employment, describes his experience with the group on harm reduction.

“I appreciate the shared knowledge and how ideas are carried through a process from discussion towards completion,” he said. “I enjoy having regular opportunities to participate in conversations about harm reduction. This group has been invaluable in bringing new people with a broad range of opinions into the fold.”

Kelly Heisz, executive director of SeniorsNL, shares Mr. Rees’ outlook.

“SeniorsNL has been involved with the research exchange group on aging since 2007,” said Ms. Heisz. “The program enables us to connect with stakeholders who care about our aging population, whether from community, health care or academia. At the meetings, we share information and expertise, and learn about innovative programs and services that benefit both seniors and those who support them.”

Award-winning programs

This year, Memorial University’s President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnerships was awarded to a program that sprouted from the research exchange group on horticultural therapy.

Ten people pose outside a cedar greenhouse. Six are standing, and four are posed on the ground. Several of them hold potted plants. They are all smiling at the camera.
Participants in the Phoenix Garden Project pose in front of their greenhouse.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

While organizing a talk about gardening at San Quentin Prison, a participant working at His Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) asked if she could invite a group of inmates along to meet the California-based team.

The conversation led to the Phoenix Garden Project, which connects community and Memorial University volunteers with “inside gardeners” at HMP to deliver gardening and mindfulness training.

For more success stories about the research exchange groups or to find out how to get involved, visit the NLCAHR website.

Meetings are free, virtual and open to everyone.

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