When QMSS students reach their senior year, they have one course yet to complete in the minor program: QMSS 451-“Senior Capstone: Social Science Study Management.” In this capstone course, seniors take the knowledge they have learned from their other QMSS courses and put it to the test by helping a real-world organization with a data-driven project. That project may involve data collection, data organization, data analysis, data interpretation, and/or data presentation all depending on the client’s needs and preferences. In the winter semester of 2021, the first cohort of QMSS students completed the capstone under Dr. Beth Ann Whitaker. To facilitate the first-ever QMSS/Community collaboration, Dr. Whitaker reached out to long-time friend, Dr. Pam Miklavcic.
Dr. Miklavcic is the Director of the Lansing-based nonprofit, The Davies Project (TDP), an organization she founded to fulfill a need she observed through her own life experiences. While working as a doctoral student in Agricultural Economics, Dr. Miklavcic’s life took a dramatic turn when her young son was diagnosed with leukemia six weeks before her daughter’s due date. While leukemia may be curable, especially if caught early, Miklavcic recalled a “long, hard fight to keep him with us.” This fight even involved giving birth in a hospital bed alongside her son while he received a blood transfusion. Thankfully, her son survived, was even named a “Kid of Inspiration” by the Michigan State University Children’s Health Initiative founded by Dr. Dele Davies, and is now a healthy adult.
Other children and families, however, were not so lucky. Miklavcic recalled “a few deaths that were probably very preventable” but that still occurred because families could not navigate the healthcare system. “You can have the best healthcare in the world, but what does it matter if you can’t access it?”, she asked. In order to help families and kids who struggle with illness and chronic conditions and who face challenges dealing with the health care system itself, Miklavcic joined the Children’s Health Initiative, an organization that worked toward a comprehensive pediatric healthcare delivery system for kids in mid-Michigan. She began serving on its board and later served as its director. Eventually, however, M.S.U. stopped supporting the program. Miklavcic felt there was still much work to be done, so she began to lay the groundwork for what would eventually become The Davies Project.
The Davies Project provides transportation to and from medical appointments for children and parents impacted by chronic disease, for pregnant mothers, and for parents with children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Shockingly, 70% of children who need specialty medical services in the Lansing area are on Medicaid and they miss up to 60% of their appointments often due to a lack of workable transportation options. To combat this, The Davies Project trains volunteer drivers and connects them with families for a cost-free ride to the hospital or health care appointment. TDP’s mission and tagline is “More Than Just a Ride.” While the benefit TDP provides for children is clear, the initiative also helps patients’ parents. Many parents have a “well-earned mistrust” after years of navigating and negotiating within the healthcare system. The ride program lifts a load off them as it guarantees that a ride to and from treatment will be made available. In addition, drivers provide human connection. Miklavcic and Howard both understand how stressful and isolating having a sick child can be and the importance of friends during this time. The ride program “introduces people across the community who never would have met otherwise” and creates a network that “becomes a community in itself.” The Davies Project also provides snack bags and books to patients, siblings, and parents with children in the NICU. It is a small gesture that carries a strong message: “you matter, and someone is always thinking of you.”
The Davies Project is also especially important for its work helping immigrants and refugees. Many immigrants’ and refugees’ access to health care resources is limited, and they may be afraid to engage with the medical care system. The Davies Project alleviates some of the barriers as they offer support and also translation services for parents who have language barriers that can be especially limiting when dealing with medical, technical and life-and-death planning and instructions.
Operating since 2016, The Davies Project entered 2020 looking to expand their mission and help more families in need. However, the COVID-19 Pandemic altered their plans. COVID-19 “really slowed things down,” in Miklavcic’s words. Every event was moved online, and participation in them dropped off sharply. Aside from the usual issues of donor fatigue, unpredictable fundraising totals, and juggling costs, they had to contend with new health regulations and new areas where they were needed. Volunteers expanded their roles, helping with food deliveries for students who usually depended on schools for meals. While there were fewer big fundraising events, TDP did see new interest from individual, online donors that helped to bridge the gap. COVID-19 was by no means kind, but coming into the pandemic in a strong financial position meant that TDP was able to survive. When Dr. Whitaker reached out to Miklavcic about a working relationship with QMSS, Miklavcic jumped at the opportunity to see what students could do to help.
The collaboration started without a set goal. In Miklavcic’s words, “we went in with an open mind to see what we could do.” Dr. Whitaker’s goal was to provide an opportunity for the students to lead the way rather than she or The Davies Project dictating exactly what needed to be done. Briley Oly, a QMSS alumnus and a member of the student team that worked with TDP, reported that “We...had the freedom to determine the direction of the project...and -we were faced with the ultimate responsibility of the final outcome.” Through various exploratory interviews and conversations with Executive Director Miklavcic and Director of Fund Development Howard, Dr. Whitaker and the capstone students focused in on some of TDP’s needs and created data-driven projects to address them.
The Winter 2021 cohort was broken up into two teams to complete two initiatives for The Davies Project. TDP expressed their need for more concrete data to showcase the value of their services. Data collection and management is ubiquitous in the modern world, and The Davies Project is no different in its desire to take advantage of data in the running of its operations. As a small, newer organization, however, TDP did not have the time or resources to fully leverage their own organizational data or the plethora of data that exists on health and transportation issues. For example, for The Davies Project, ready access to accurate data could be crucial for increasing funds and grants from donors.
One student team addressed this need by locating external data that could be translated into visualizations for reports, presentations and proposals to illustrate in an easily digestible format significant trends in illness, pediatric care, and transportation and resource challenges. The student group cultivated a dataset of demographic factors, at-risk characteristics, and pediatric and prenatal illness statistics for the six counties that are the focus of TDP's work. This data set was translated into charts and maps that help communicate the need for transportation support within pediatric and prenatal medical care.
The second student team focused on TDP’s internal organizational data. The student team applied their skills to create a new interactive dashboard. While The Davies Project previously considered developing an online dashboard, the idea was “many years out.” Easy access to data is essential for non-profits: donors want to see evidence that a group can do what they say are capable of. Without an easy way to access and see data, employees have to manually sort through the data and pick out useful components when they filed a grant proposal, spoke to a donor, or engaged in strategic planning. Thus, the second student team created a graphic dashboard that presents client and service provision metrics.
The semester-long collaboration ended with a presentation of project results by the student team and a transfer of work product deliverables to TDP. Overall, The Davies Project was very satisfied with how the project turned out. As Miklavcic puts it, she was so satisfied that that “if anyone wants to work with [them]” in the future, “[they’re] available for the next 20 years!” Likewise, the QMSS program is so grateful for the partnership. QMSS teaches students useful, in-demand skills, but as Oly noted, “the opportunity to practice and build upon these skills in a real-world setting” is just as essential.
Even further, Oly said that working with The Davies Project was the most memorable and impactful project he worked on in his undergraduate career and that the capstone course was an “invaluable developmental experience” that provided him with applicable knowledge and hands-on skills needed in his professional endeavors. He found that the opportunity to collaborate with clients, coordinate consultation meetings, and cultivate datasets prepared him for his current work that combines aspects of data analytics and the social sciences. In addition, the fact that he was ultimately responsible for the outcome of the project was not only empowering, but very reflective of expectations in the professional world. The capstone course taught him how to be versatile and flexible as well as how to operate within a team, crucial skills necessary in any professional environment.
The first QMSS Capstone collaboration was successful for all parties, and the QMSS program is excited to create more valuable capstone experiences for its students and community partners in the future.
More about The Davies Project
The Davies Project (TDP) is a Lansing-based non-profit that provides free transportation to and from medical appointments to children with long-term illnesses (and their families), pregnant women, and parents with a child in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). TDP drivers serve on a volunteer basis and, along with rides, they offer social contact and support through what can be an incredibly isolating experience. Since its founding in 2016, the organization has provided rides to over 360 children, 110 women, and 18 NICU families. Starting in 2020, TDP also began to deliver meals to children who could no longer receive free breakfast and lunch from their schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.