When We Mentor Our Colleagues, We Improve Our Field

Posted Jun 19, 2018

Barbara Wakeen

Happy spring—I think it has finally reached all parts of the country by now! With spring comes growth and revitalization. Speaking of growth, I was heartened to see so many younger professionals at the NCCHC Spring Conference in Minneapolis. This underscores the appeal of this practice area and holds promise for ongoing evolution in our field.

One of the many hats I wear is the coordinator of a worldwide listserv of correctional dietitians and food service professionals. I field queries related to correctional nutrition, diets and food service to those looking for assistance with guidelines and nationally recognized practice. This role has evolved during the course of my career through networking and involvement in corrections.

When I receive a query about nutrition in corrections, my questions are, what is the population and type of facility, what state are you in, what accreditations does the facility have and is the facility self-operated or contracted? This information enables me to give an appropriate response to assist my colleagues in meeting their population needs. If the person is a novice to corrections, I explain that we meet needs just as in any other long-term care environment, including the provision of medical and religious diets. I also elaborate that everything varies by state regulations, contracts and accreditations.

It is rewarding when I eventually meet the newcomers at a corrections conference and they express their gratitude for the guidance that helps in their success; they are so happy to have a network from which to learn and grow.

Mentoring Others to Make a Difference

Many of us in corrections are “lifers”—we “fell” into corrections by varying modes and grew from there. For most of us, we didn’t get a degree with the idea of specializing in corrections, but here we are today making a difference for underserved populations.

Those outside of this field find it fascinating when they learn what we do in corrections. Many years ago, I assisted a university dietetics program with student shadowing experiences at the local jail. The students were so excited and enamored after spending the day at the jail that the remaining students wanted to attend, as well. While future jail shadowing experiences didn’t work out for various reasons, this led to one-on-one shadowing with me, to gain experience and learn about corrections.

Today, I mentor dietetic students and novice dietitians. Some of this evolved through word-of-mouth at the university and some through networking. Word has spread through some dietetic programs, and I now have students from various universities who reach out for shadowing, corrections experience and writing papers on corrections. For some who are looking for additional experience (and money!), I hire them as student workers to help with projects such as nutritional analyses, medical diets and menu planning, each with its own unique parameters.

Most recently, I have been working with relatively new dietitians around the country who request assistance with their corrections work, nationally recognized practices and more. Of course, I always address accreditations and orient them to NCCHC and promote the NCCHC standards.

A New Generation in Correctional Health

I share these insights because our niche is evolving as the millennial generation enters the corrections field. These young professionals are starting out with a focus on corrections, and they seek to grow through mentoring, exposure and networking. This was evident at the NCCHC Spring Conference, and especially at a session where the speaker queried the audience for years working in corrections. It was surprising to see how many had five years or less experience! Dr. Eileen Couture, my predecessor as board chair, has a daughter who started a correctional medical club, run by medical students, at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL. They have a board, invite guest speakers and have participated in two tours of the Cook County Jail.

With this new generation in mind, I am happy to share two new initiatives that NCCHC is implementing this year:

  • NCCHC Connect, an online community that will serve as a platform for like-minded professionals to network, share ideas and resources and stay connected—at any time, from any place
  • The Young Professionals Award, to be helmed by a newly formed Young Professionals Working Group and launched at the 2018 National Conference

Look for information on these activities in the NCCHC e-newsletter and via our social media platforms.

The common thread in the thoughts that I’ve shared is that personal relationships across the generational spectrum and across platforms are essential to growth—both for individuals and for the field as a whole. We benefit, our patients benefit and we foster the climate for continued evolution.

Barbara A. Wakeen is the chair of NCCHC’s board of directors and principal of Correctional Nutrition Consultants, Ltd.

— From CorrectCare Volume 32, Issue 2, Spring 2018