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​Community Engagement Conference helps develop meaningful partnerships for health

A two-day conference to build relationships, share knowledge and improve community health filled hallways, meeting rooms and ballrooms at The Ohio State University this week.

The inaugural Community Engagement Conference was held at the Ohio Union Wednesday and Thursday. While the focus of the conference was advancing a culture of wellness and health, the goal was to help identify and develop meaningful partnerships far beyond the university.

Ohio State’s Alumni Association, Discovery Themes Initiative, Office of International Affairs, Office of Outreach and Engagement, Office of Research, Office of Student Life, OSU Extension, University Libraries and Wexner Medical Center sponsored the conference.

Dozens of presentations focused on issues like food insecurity, medication safety, child care and addiction. President Michael V. Drake spoke to attendees on the first day of the conference and noted the gathering was at the core of the university’s land grant mission.

“We’re here to be able to educate people -- to be able to go into our communities and to uplift the quality of life for our neighbors, for our families, for our fellow citizens, people all throughout our region, all throughout our state and all across the country and the world,” Drake said.

Roger Rennekamp, director of OSU Extension and Associate Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement Stephen Myers co-hosted the conference. They expect the conference will help improve lives because of the knowledge that was shared.

“For many of the faculty and staff who work in the 88 county Extension offices across Ohio the conference provided a venue for them to build relationships with faculty and staff from on-campus departments who shares similar interests,” Rennekamp said. “These new relationships will ultimately shorten the time it takes for new discoveries to make positive impacts on the lives of Ohioans.”

Ohio State Pharmacy outreach at the conference. Photo: Victor van Buchem

Myers agreed.

“It’s our mission to serve the public at the local, national and global level. So it really serves as a model of how we're going to be a land grant university in the 21st century and we believe that's by solving problems through meaningful partnerships with the community. As a result, the solutions will be more relevant, impactful and innovative. And this conference gives us a chance to network and learn about how to be more effective in developing those meaningful partnerships.”

One of the most pressing health issues in Ohio is an ongoing opiate abuse crisis. It was a topic addressed by speakers at the conference and during several break-out sessions. Keynote speaker Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services, said a holistic approach like the one presented at Ohio State is key to solving the problem.

“The opiate crisis going on right now cannot be solved by the doctors and the nurses. It requires a community partnership that embraces those that are afflicted and their families,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity for treatment as well as a life after that.”

One of the programs that recognizes the team approach to problem solving and the value of meaningful partnerships is Generation Rx. The partnership between The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy and the Cardinal Health Foundation works to prevent the misuse of prescription medication.

Before presenting at the conference, Nicole Kwiek, co-director of Generation Rx, explained why partnerships matter.

“It’s not a one-sided affair, where we think the audience wants this, we think that schools are going to need this resource, we’re going to create it and hope they pick it up,” Kwiek said. “It’s actually using the expertise of our partners to know there is a need and how to address that need.”

The Community Engagement Conference served as an opportunity for networking and building connections outside of the university. But it wasn’t just for professionals -- students presented, participated and learned from the conference.

John Begala, former director for the Center for Community Solutions, presented “Big City Problems in Ohio’s Small Towns.” He said the state’s new graduates are critical to Ohio’s success.

“There are a number of young people here. Your energy and your commitment might find an outlet in places where you might not otherwise look,” he said. “For those of you from small towns, pursue and help create opportunities in these places.”

More than 800 people attended the two-day conference. It is expected to become an annual event at Ohio State.