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Colleen Lammel-Harmon is in the middle of pursuing her Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) at Northeastern Illinois University. She came to Northeastern with nearly two decades of experience in the Chicago Park District in health and wellness, now serving as the senior project manager of health and wellness.
To the dismay of many Chicagoans, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Chicago’s 570 parks were closed. As stay-at-home orders were being lifted, the Chicago Park District was faced with a challenge: how to reopen safely, especially along the lakefront.
“People were very anxious to get out and exercise,” Lammel-Harmon said. “Different groups, like the Chicago Area Running Association and others, were coming to us asking if there was anything they could do to safely and still use the lakefront.”
As they considered options, Lammel-Harmon and her team took a few tips from the Seattle Park District and created Chicago’s Social Distance Ambassadors program.
“It was really a peer way to safely open parks, ensure people are staying 6 feet apart, wearing face coverings and making sure everyone has proper hand sanitation especially given that, at the time we launched this, most of the field houses were closed to the public,” Lammel-Harmon said. “So there wasn’t a way for people to wash their hands.”
Since June, the Chicago Park District has had Social Distance Ambassadors along the lakefront trail and, so far, the response has been pretty positive. The program utilizes its lifeguards and other personnel who would otherwise be working in field houses that are currently closed to reach out to patrons to promote, educate them and be an example of how to use the parks safely.
“I was out with the ambassadors for three weeks when we launched the program and most people were really positive and would say, ‘Thank you for being out here,’” Lammel-Harmon said. “Of course there were some people who were a little negative, but we don’t want anyone congregating. We don’t want picnics. The beaches are closed. Playgrounds are closed. So, we repurposed people, like the lifeguards and recreational leaders, to go out and be public health messengers to show what we can do safely and help people understand what we really shouldn’t be doing right now.”
Through her work with the Chicago Park District, Lammel-Harmon often hired interns from Northeastern’s undergraduate Public Health program. Her decision to enroll was inspired by a conversation with an intern when Lammel-Harmon shared that she wanted to earn an M.P.H.
“The intern challenged me and said, ‘Well, if it’s your goal, how long has it been your goal and what steps have you taken to achieve it?’” Lammel-Harmon said. “It made me look at what my next career goals are. After hosting various interns from Northeastern and meeting with Dr. Jennifer Banas, this M.P.H. was a brand new program and they seemed really welcoming to working with people who are already in their career who want to take it to the next step. I will say it’s extremely challenging, but it’s very broad with different aspects of public health, which is really why I wanted my master’s degree, to take my education to the next level and use it in government with the Chicago Park District looking at parks as public health hubs.”
Banas, professor and M.P.H. program coordinator, said the M.P.H. degree and certificate programs at Northeastern were intentionally designed to ensure students have a meaningful experience, especially for students who are already professionals practicing in the public health field, like Lammel-Harmon.
“Colleen has hosted a number of undergraduate students as interns from the Health Science and Physical Education bachelor’s of Community Health,” Banas said. “A component of that program is a 200-hour field experience. Colleen has always welcomed the opportunity to be a site supervisor for an intern, which is not always easy because you have to ensure they have a meaningful experience and gain practical experience.”
“She’s inquisitive,” Banas said of Colleen. “She likes to learn. She’s also fearless. When I heard about what she was doing, that she was out and about, encouraging and educating people about wearing a mask I thought, ‘Gosh, she’s got a lot of guts!’ I don’t know if I could do that. It speaks perfectly to the kind of person Colleen is. When she feels that something is important she’s not afraid to share her ideas with others and educate them in a way so that they don’t feel judged about it. It’s done with care and concern. That light touch makes Colleen a great public health professional. She’s able to take perspective and put herself in someone else’s shoes and frame her message from that point of view.”
James Ball, chair of the Department of Health Sciences and Physical Education, is also not surprised by Lammel-Harmon’s work, especially now.
“Colleen is one of the hardest working students in the M.P.H. program,” Ball said. “She works endlessly to make sure her assignments are done correctly. She is always taking what she is learning in the M.P.H. program and trying to understand how to transfer it to her job with the park district. Colleen is an exceptional student and we are lucky to have her in the first cohort of the M.P.H. program.”
Lammel-Harmon said learning about biostatistics and epidemiology have been especially useful to her in regards to writing grants and understanding health disparities among Chicagoans.
“Being able to take program data and being able to turn it into a story, really epidemiology, or what you can implement in a program to change a health disparity is really important,” Lammel- Harmon said. “Chicago is up there as one of the largest cities and we have a lot of health disparities in Chicago. There’s no better time than now to look at these health issues because we’re seeing these health disparities impact COVID cases. We can see it’s a public health issue.”
Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the “Move Your Way” campaign, the Chicago Park District is doing what it can to promote safe physical activity during the pandemic in numerous ways. The park district has started offering virtual exercise classes on its website and social media platforms for those who are unable to make it to the parks or want to work out at home. There are also short videos on how to exercise with little to no equipment, using household items—like milk cartons and water bottles—family fitness videos and other free resources to help people stay healthy and get comfortable with the idea of working out.
“We want to let people know that every 10 minutes of physical activity counts,” Lammel-Harmon said. “At minimum we should get 150 minutes of exercise a week. When you tell someone who’s not active they should be exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, it’s a little less intimidating if you break it down into 10-minute sets. We need to still be physically active. We need to get outside for mental health reasons. There’s no better place than the parks.”