Nursing students raise thousands to benefit veteran’s oral, mental health

February 19, 2018
Second degree nursing students stand by their booth where they gave veterans free dental kits and other goods.

Associate Professor of Nursing Jean Gash always tries to inspire a little friendly competition between her Second Degree Option Nursing students in the Community Health course. But what one group was able to accomplish blew her away.

A group of seven nursing students recently raised more than $2,800, and nearly double that in donated goods to promote healthy living at the Operation Stand Down event for veterans.

The students gave away 500 dental kits and other prizes via a prize wheel, which included first aid kits, blankets, flash lights, hats and other items veterans, many of them homeless, need.

“They took this assignment and ran with it,” Gash said. “This is the Mercy and Jesuit mission. I tend to be very passionate about this because I’ve always worked with the homeless, for like 30 years. So when they go out, it’s wonderful to watch them blossom.

“Look at them, they’ve accomplished something huge that I think they’re going to take with them the rest of their lives. They’re never going to take homelessness for granted again.”

The group did such a good job raising money that they ended up having $500 left after the Stand Down event.

The students didn’t want to see the money go to waste so they started brainstorming ideas for another way to help a veteran in need. Instead of helping a large group, this time they elected to help a veteran on a more personal level.

A member of the group, Marissa Manzella, knew of a veteran who was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after serving in Afghanistan. Manzella had never personally met former Marine Jerry Fulcher, but reached out to his family to see if he could use the money to see a therapist who specialized in PTSD.

“We had $500 left over, so we were like, ‘Why don’t we take this extra money and legitimately change someone’s life with it,’ ” Manzella said. “Jerry was involved in a fire fight in Afghanistan and he suffers from severe PTSD. He has trouble functioning. We talked to him and asked him if he would consider doing therapy sessions with a gentleman who specializes in PTSD recovery in Lake Orion. He said, ‘Yeah, I would definitely be all for that.’ So I called the psychiatrist and I spoke with him. He said, ‘Typically I charge x amount of dollars,’ so he would have got around seven sessions. So I’m like, ‘Is there any possible way, since this would be a donation, that you would work with us a little bit.’ He said, ‘You know what, let’s just make it 10 sessions.’ ”

Fulcher’s fiancé, Alexis Desotell, was blown away by the gesture for her family and hopes it will help Fulcher recover so he can be the father he wants to be for their children.

“I would like to take a minute today to thank this group of people for thinking of my Jerry and reaching out to us,” Desotell said. “Your donation was like sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day. You will all forever hold a place in my heart. I can’t even begin to thank you for thinking of us.”

Humble beginnings

When the group of Manzella, Nikoleta Schermerhorn, Robbie Goldi, Christopher Brooks, Kenneth Bergin, Dominique Cleveland, Maggie Matthewson and Teena Varma met for the first time, two things were clear: they wanted to top what last year’s top group did and they weren’t really sure where to start just yet.

“The first day, I’m not going to lie, we were like, ‘Where do we start? Should we start talking to people? Should we start raising money?’ ” Schermerhorn said. “We wanted to identify a problem we all noticed. We noticed the dental health was poor with all the veterans we saw through clinicals so we decided this would be the topic of our project.

“We then came up with guidelines of what we needed to do to provide good healthcare for them. We wanted to educate them because a lot of them are poor or homeless so we wanted to make sure we provide supplies to keep good dental hygiene.”

The group began raising money through a bottle drive and a GoFundMe page. Through the bottle drive, the Detroit Mercy students were able to raise nearly $2,000, which at 10 cents a bottle meant they collected nearly 20,000 bottles.

Returning that many bottles took a lot of time, effort and coordination. Most places have a cap on how many bottles can be returned at once, but through all the challenges the group was able to get the job done.

“Three different times when we were returning bottles and cans, people were like, ‘What do you have all these bottles and cans for? Are you doing some sort of drive?’ ” Brooks said. “One guy thought I just drank a lot of pop. But once people found out what we were doing it for, they just started handing us money.”

With enough money to get started, the group decided to do a test run by at an Homeless Patient Aligned Care Teams (H-PACT) fair.

The students put together dental kits and also had information for the veterans, like places to get cheap teeth cleanings or places like the Detroit Mercy Dental that do free extractions.

“We were looking to reach them, not just, ‘Here’s this kit, see ya.’ It was more, ‘We can provide a little longevity with these resources,’ ” Goldi said. “A lot of the veterans kind of looked at us when we gave them the dental kits, ‘Why of all the things that I need are you giving me a dental kit?’ So we went further and explained to them that a lot of the problems in the body start from not taking care of your mouth. Cardiac disease, infections, all these things start there. By preventing that, you can prevent many other diseases. It decreases the risk of so many problems that can occur later. When we explained that to them, they were like, ‘Oh, nobody ever told me that.’ And then they’d ask for two dental kits.”

Taking the next step

The group felt the H-PACT event was a success and wanted to reach even more veterans at the Operation Stand Down event.

They continued to raise money and gather donations of other supplies at local military recruiting stations and dental offices.

“Even though we had dental health as our main focus, we wanted to give a bit extra as well because they need more than just dental health kits,” Brooks said. “We started using some of the money we raised to get first-aid kits set up set in Tupperware bowls so they can reuse those. Also, we wanted to make sure we provided them with an outlet to go to, resources so they can continue to get good dental care and other types of healthcare if they’re not fully covered by the VA.

“I didn’t know until I started doing my rotations in the VA that everyone who was in the military doesn’t get full coverage. Most veterans only get a partial amount. People who have been in 20 years get the full amount, but everyone who goes like four years only gets like between 40 and 60 percent. That 40 to 60 percent doesn’t cover oral hygiene so they can’t get their teeth taken out if they’re rotten. We wanted to cater to that group of people. The ones who don’t have all the help they possibly can get. The ones who don’t have a choice.”

As part of the curriculum at Detroit Mercy, most of the nursing students have done clinicals at the VA hospital and come to know veterans from all different eras.

Spending time at the VA hospital opened their eyes so when they got a chance to do something to help, they all were eager to make an impact.

“You don’t really understand how much people need until you see how much they don’t have,” Brooks said. “For me, it kind of opened up my eyes to see how much people don’t have compared to how much I personally don’t have. Most people stay in their same family group, they don’t really step out of that. But when you step out of that and you see how little people have, and how much of an impact something that’s so menial to us can have on someone who doesn’t really have much, that really makes it worth it. All the work you put into it, to be able to see someone’s needs being taken care of, that’s what impacted me the most.”

The booth at the Operation Stand Down Event proved to be a rousing success with more than 500 veterans stopping by.

“It’s hard for us to explain, but if you saw how many people came to this, we were just amazed,” Schermerhorn said. “We couldn’t believe starting from nothing that we were able to achieve so much, 500 people.”

“Seeing these guys, they go over and fight for a year or two years or however long it is and then they come back and just get brushed away like they were nothing,” Manzella said. “For us to come in there and say, ‘We’re interested in your lives, we want to hear what you went through,’ I think that they liked that.”

Going above and beyond

Once the group realized they had $500 left over, they immediately knew they had to do something impactful with it.

Manzella came up with the idea of donating it for counseling sessions for Fulcher, but she knew she had to be careful with how she approached implementing the idea.

“I didn’t know how he was going to take it,” Manzella said. “I didn’t know if he was going to be offended by us saying, ‘Let us help you,’ because some people take that the wrong way.”

Fulcher was touched by the gesture and agreed to start seeing the therapist.

“Jerry was a helicopter mechanic,” Manzella said. “When he came back, he couldn’t find a job. He didn’t have an income, he didn’t have much going his way, which was part of his PTSD because he kind of lost his purpose. Because when you go from, ‘Oh the helicopter is down, we need you to get it back in the sky,’ to he comes back here and he’s like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I had this job that is specific to helicopters, where am I going to go?”

Fulcher has begun his sessions and Desotell gives updates to Manzella so she fills in the group.

“He went to his first session and it was tough,” Manzella said. “He went to his second session and she called me, and I guess they had delved even deeper into problems and it went a lot better. As he’s been going it’s getting better and better.

“After that first phone call I was a little worried, but now it’s going a lot better. He has two little kids and they want their dad.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.