ORANGE CITY—Northwestern College’s first cohort of physician assistant graduate students took a break from finals to write Christmas cards to inmates Tuesday morning, Dec. 15.
The activity was initiated by Megan Stahl, who said she decided to ask her fellow students at the Orange City-based college to join her in making Christmas cards after COVID-19 prevented them from doing other things to give back over the holidays.
“It’s important to give back to other people and that’s something we try to do in our program is create hope for our patients and other people,” Stahl said. “It’s hard with COVID to go to nursing homes and do those types of things.”
Together the 24 students wrote holiday messages and decorated cards which will be delivered to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca, MN.
The cohort made a little more than 120 Christmas cards, one for each of the women at the prison who is able to receive outside mail and packages. The low-security prison houses more than 600 women.
Stahl chose the prison as the recipient of the cards in part because she grew up nearby in Faribault, MN. She also will be doing a six- to eight-week rotation at the prison next fall as part of her didactic training and thought this was a good way to start reaching out to the women she will be seeing.
“I just thought it would be really awesome if we reached out to those women and were able to just offer them some sort of hope during the holiday season,” the 26-yar-old said. “We think so often that people who are incarcerated are terrible people, but they are still human beings and often have just made bad choices.
“Helping them and helping them feel loved is just something I feel called to do.”
Other members of her group also may visit the institution next year to offer physical exams for inmates as part of their clinical experience.
Lori Anderson, a professor of practice in Northwestern’s physician assistant program, said she was thrilled when Stahl approached her with the idea. She also had been looking for a community service project for the cohort.
“In a non-COVID year we could do all kinds of good things like take our whole class to go caroling at the nursing home,” Anderson said. “We decided, you know, we’re a faith-based program and we need to share the love of Jesus with all. The very least we can do is these cards for people who aren’t going to get very much for the holidays.”
She hopes the exercise offered a much-needed break from studying for finals — the cohort was gearing up for their 10th test in two weeks to wrap up the semester — and provided a chance for the group to give back.
Making the cards was rolled into a Christmas party the students organized. Over breakfast pizzas and hot cider, students gathered colored paper, stickers, ribbons and washi tape to make cards by hand. Others took blank cards and wrote messages offering well-wishes and prayers to the recipients.
Anderson hopes making Christmas cards or doing other activities to give back over the holidays will become a tradition among future cohorts in the physician assistant program.
“That’s one of the cornerstones of a faith-based PA program, is we do allow our faith to be expressed through what we do in the community,” she said. “I’m hoping this tradition will continue with others in the future.”
Making and writing Christmas cards is already a holiday tradition for Stahl. Before enrolling at Northwestern, she was a youth director at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Faribault. She started making and sending Christmas cards to prisons with kids in that program.
“This would be the sixth year of me doing it,” Stahl said. “One Christmas I was brainstorming ways to give back, rather than just buying presents. I was having a hard time really connecting and this was just something that came to my mind.”
It ties in with her professional goals as well. Stahl hopes to work as a physician assistant serving underserved populations, which may include working at correctional facilities and prisons.
“I’ve always had this desire to serve people who are just less fortunate,” she said. “I see myself, after becoming a PA, serving in an underserved area where people might not have the easiest success to health care. It’s been on the forefront of my brain, how can we serve those who are less fortunate or have other life circumstances that impact them.”