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Montana State nursing students assist veterans in northwest Montana

BOZEMAN — As part of a health promotion class in the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing at Montana State University, Levi Specht assists employees and volunteers at Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry in Kalispell.

Since 2022, students at MSU’s Kalispell nursing campus have helped out at the organization, which provides veterans and other members of the community access to food, medical equipment and other essentials, like clothing, blankets and furniture.

Specht spends much of his time in the nonprofit’s durable medical equipment area, helping individuals find what they need, showing them how to use it and making sure items like wheelchairs, canes and walkers fit the customers properly. Patrons can rent the equipment for free for 120 days or purchase items at a reduced rate.

“Most of the time when people come in, they are hesitant,” Specht said. “We make sure that we have what they need and help fit them into the equipment.”

Ill-fitting medical equipment can lead to accidents and injuries, according to Kaki Mendius, campus director at the MSU nursing college’s Kalispell location. She also leads Specht’s health promotion course, which students take during their first year in the nursing college. Each student is assigned to a local organization to assist with promoting good health habits.

“If we can promote health before people are in the hospital, we can prevent people from making hospital visits,” Mendius said.

Since partnering with the food pantry, MSU nursing students have run information campaigns at the organization by putting together a guide on how to properly fit medical equipment. They’ve also accrued and dispensed information on how to properly use various items and correct techniques for caregivers to lift patients.

At the organization’s food bank, students research and develop healthy recipes for customers using available food items. For example, the food bank once received 300 pounds of parsnips, and nobody really knew what to do with them, according to Linda Erickson, director of programs at Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry.

MSU students found parsnip recipes, taught customers about their health benefits and held tastings at the food pantry, she said. Other times students have found recipes for people who have trouble chewing but still want to enjoy the taste of their favorite foods.

Two to four students are assigned to the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry each semester. Additionally, Specht and 12 of his classmates volunteered at the organization’s Stand Down event last month in Libby, which is designed to feed, clothe and provide medical services to veterans, including those struggling with housing insecurity.

More than 500 veterans participated in the two-day event, according to Erickson. MSU students helped set up the event and distributed food and blankets. There were also mental health professionals and a mobile medical unit on site that provided health screenings and flu shots. Students had the opportunity to shadow health care professionals as they worked with veterans and learn more about careers focused on veterans’ health.

“I feel they learn a lot, and they help us a lot,” Erickson said, adding that the students’ help is greatly appreciated.

Specht said he appreciates working with and getting to know veterans from multiple generations. He said he is a small piece in the puzzle of addressing veterans’ needs, but dispersing resources and informing veterans of their resources is rewarding work.

“I really like for our Bobcat nursing students to have the opportunity to interact with veterans.” Mendius said. “Being exposed to and learning about different populations and their health care needs ultimately makes students better nurses, more compassionate and more informed.”

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