Service trip to Jamaica takes on added meaning for nursing faculty member

WCU nursing students and their faculty leaders, Cheryl Clark (kneeling, far left) and Elizabeth Sexton (second from right), show off the WHEE Wagon that was presented to Diana Brown-Miller (standing, far left), chief executive officer of the Black River Hospital in Jamaica. (Photos by Rachel Sexton)

Cheryl Clark, an assistant professor in Western Carolina University’s School of Nursing, says she always has found participating in service trips to Jamaica to be positive experiences, but a recent journey to that Caribbean island nation with a group of WCU nursing students plumbed an even greater depth of personal meaning – and it involved a little red wagon.

Clark, a former full-time member of the faculty who now serves part-time, and Elizabeth Sexton, assistant professor of nursing, led 15 nursing students to Jamaica during WCU’s October fall break. With an itinerary that included nursing-related volunteer work in hospitals and schools, the group collected a mass of supplies to take on the journey ranging from stethoscopes to the black and brown shoes that Jamaican children are required to wear at school. All those items were stuffed into 19 suitcases in preparation for the trip.

The WCU students travel across the Jamaican countryside toward their next service opportunity.

Clark said the group flew out of Atlanta on Friday, Oct. 13, with each person lugging to the airport not only his or her personal suitcase, but also at least one suitcase filled with supplies. The group also brought along a cardboard box containing a WHEE Wagon – a children’s wagon that had been equipped with an IV pole through the School of Nursing’s WHEE Wagon Program. Funded through donations, the program provides the wagons free to hospitals and other facilities and to individual families to provide medically fragile children with an opportunity to enjoy their playtime while still being connected to an IV.

Clark said the group arrived in Jamaica and was relieved to pass easily by the airport customs officer with its mass of baggage and the boxed wagon. The faculty and students proceeded to travel around Jamaica for a week, providing medical screenings and conducting health fairs in schools, infirmaries for the homeless and other locations. One stop included the Black River Hospital in the southwestern corner of Jamaica, where the students volunteered for a day. It was there that the WHEE Wagon was removed from its box and presented to Diana Brown-Miller, the hospital’s chief executive officer, to provide enjoyment for children being treated at the facility. It is adorned with a placard that reads: “This wagon donated to the children of Jamaica by Cheryl Clark in loving memory of her grandson Nathan.”

Nursing student Vicki Kutnetsov gets acquainted with a Jamaican infant during a health fair.

Clark said Nathan Andrew Clark was a soccer player and eighth-grader who attended Calvary Baptist Day School in Winston-Salem. Nathan died in an accidental shooting in November of 2014 as he attended a soccer tournament in Raleigh with his grandmother and other family members. A man mishandled a gun inside the hotel where Nathan and his family were staying, and it went off. The bullet pierced the hotel wall and struck Nathan, who was three months away from earning his Eagle Scout rank, causing his death.

“I had always told Nathan that someday he could go down to Jamaica with me and do a service project there,” Clark said. “So, I decided this year I wanted to take the WHEE Wagon.”

Clark said the trip participants paid their own travel expenses – $1,845 for each. The group benefited from a donation from the Franklin Rotary Club to help provide supplies, and Delta Airlines donated some free baggage delivery, she said. This year’s School of Nursing service trip to Jamaica was the fifth one undertaken since 2012.

Clark said she and Sexton are proud of the service provided by the 15 students and that they were excellent representatives of the university. “It was an especially meaningful trip for me,” she said. “The students were very sweet, and as nervous as I was until we got the wagon through customs.”

More information about the WHEE Wagon Program is available by contacting Susan Hester, assistant professor of nursing, at swhester@wcu.edu.