Side By Side

The IIHHS and the Commitment to Partnership in Community Resiliency, Response, and Recovery

Pictured Above: Dr. Tammy Kiser works with Open Doors and the Suitcase Clinic at Godwin Hall

A Healthy Families home visitor is standing in a parking lot next to the car of a distressed mother. Her child sits expectantly in the backseat. Healthy Families of Page and Shenandoah Counties directly supports first-time parents in learning how children develop, how to keep children healthy, and how to prepare children for school through home visits, child development education, parent socials, and a toy library. Families like this one have especially felt the isolation of the pandemic. This day, the Healthy Families visitor stands in the parking lot, masked and distanced, singing through the window with the child in their car seat. They set an activity bag outside the car to be picked up after their visit. The mother thanks the visitor and tells them that this outing helped her feel “much calmer.” While this has not been a typical year for our community, acts of service like this one happen all the time at the IIHHS.

It Takes a Village

If you have ever been a part of community engagement efforts in Harrisonburg, chances are that you have heard someone rattle off the abbreviation IIHHS. IIHHS, or simply “the Institute”, is shorthand for the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services. Founded in 2003, IIHHS is a “community-engaged center of learning, scholarship, and mutual support between James Madison University and the community of Harrisonburg, surrounding counties, and the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.” This statement is not just lip-service for good intentions. The Institute is huge in scope, diverse in programming, and meets the critical needs of our community. Led by Linda Plitt Donaldson, the Institute now hosts more than 28 distinct valley non-profit programs as a branch of JMU’s College of Health and Behavioral Studies.

In a ‘typical year’, the Institute focuses all of its energy on providing direct service programs to the local and state-wide community through civic engagement, community engagement, and engaged learning opportunities. In 2020, IIHHS clinics and programs had “grown to 920 distinct program connections in the community, 90% of which were multi-year, and 44.67% being more than 10 years old,” with 36,166 hours of student engagement in direct services, program support, service learning and other collaborative endeavors and 13,257 clients receiving Institute services. Nearly 45% of these IIHHS program connections to Virginia-based agencies and institutions extend over 10 or more years. Their longstanding relationships with community partners speak to the trust and quality of the relationships based on mutual respect and collaboration, and the mutual commitment to sustain these efforts even (and especially) in times of crisis.


When the Pandemic began impacting the Shenandoah Valley early this year, the Institute had already worked steadily to prime the community with institutional resiliency. Existing programs are designed to address the health and social needs of underrepresented groups and vulnerable populations in our community with a clear drive to meet diversity, access, and inclusion needs. As a byproduct of this sustained commitment to the community, and the housing of the Institute on campus as a CHBS organization, students from the university experience transformative, engaged learning opportunities each year. The Institute houses 18 community-based programs and 8 Clinics. It also serves as a hub for Interprofessional Education (IPE); designing and implementing a 3-hour poverty simulation, a workshop on Building Cultural Humility, and coordinates a number of other for-credit IPE courses. Programs are listed here: 


For individual information on these programs, clinics, and IPE's, please visit the Institute's website.

These established partnerships are the key to JMU and the community building resiliency for future disruptions of daily life, and are supported by existing programs, centers, and partnerships within IIHHS. Resiliency provided by programs already in existence have positioned the Institute’s response and recovery efforts for community success. Starting in March of this year, the IIHHS implemented dramatic shifts in teaching, service delivery, working, communicating, and collaborating to meet the standards and expectations of community partners. In addition, the Institute responded to growing needs for mental health care, academic support, and social support among community members and JMU students.


Like many other units at JMU this year, the Institute shifted to prioritize telehealth and virtual programming. Making the switch from in-person to digital spaces in a health and human services setting required an overhaul in consents, training materials, licensure, and other needed documentation for implementation of HIPAA-compliant telehealth services. For example, the Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education Program shifted most of its activities online, providing tutoring and additional support as K-12 parents adjusted to help students maintain their virtual academics. Unable to host literacy roadshows for neighborhood children in the signature Gus Bus, the Gus Bus team launched weekly virtual enrichment classes on WebEx. When Harrisonburg and Rockingham Schools went online, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program moved their education tools and events to the digital space.

Yvonne Frazier receiving the Governor’s Award for Healthy Families in 2019

Other changes needed to happen more creatively to continue to provide high quality services and care. For example, Brain Injury Connections shifted energy to access local COVID-19 relief funding on behalf of clients to meet grocery, medical, and transportation needs. Occupational Therapy Clinical Education Services created “OT-to-GO” kits to distribute to families that included materials and an instruction sheet to help children work different muscle groups at home. The Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia was able to shift all of their planned trainings for Virginia campuses to online, purchasing an additional 300 licenses to expand access to campus-based mental health professionals across the Commonwealth. In 2020, the Institute displayed again and again the institutional agility and resilience needed to adequately respond to the needs of the community.


As IIHHS continues to adapt and respond directly to community needs during the pandemic and the challenges they bring, they are also working with our local community and academic units to begin the process of recovery. The Institute has a unique understanding of ‘the big picture’ when it comes to our community’s healthcare and wellness needs. This understanding is paired with a real ability to effectively respond in a time-sensitive and critical way.

In response to a request from Valley Health Page Memorial Hospital, the Counseling and Psychological Services Clinic placed a clinician-in-residence in Page County to see clients and supervise students. In addition, JMU licensed faculty members are dispensing free counseling services to providers in a Page County nursing home severely impacted by COVID-19 to address trauma, loss and other mental health needs.

Promotores de Salud (PDS) and the Futuro Latino Coalition (FLC) team are providing educational materials, emotional support, and other resources to the community via phone calls, WhatsApp, virtual meetings, Facebook, and Instagram. PDS and FLC are working with the Virginia Department of Health to provide COVID-19 prevention education to the refugee families and immigrants who speak Swahili, Kurdish, Arabic and Tigrinya, and indigenous languages. FLC, in conjunction with the Virginia Health Department and the Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education Program, have offered two webinars for parents on coping, building resilience, sustaining mental health and preventing substance abuse during COVID-19.

The IIHHS responded again when the City of Harrisonburg requested that the Suitcase Clinic provide ongoing medical screening with our homeless population for COVID-19, to provide case management for positive COVID-19 individuals, and to provide vital medical assistance needed to keep Open Doors Emergency Shelter open for especially vulnerable clients. They accomplished this in collaboration with Our Community Place, Mercy House, and Open Doors.

When the pandemic began impacting the Shenandoah Valley early this year, the Institute had already worked steadily over the past 17 years to form a strong foundation with community and university partners to support institutional resilience. In an age of much uncertainty, institutions like IIHHS continue to hold the line in clinics, in offices, in schools, and yes, even in parking lots. The dedicated staff have responded quickly to meet evolving needs of IIHHS constituents and continue to pave a path forward for recovery. For a deeper look into the most recent year at the IIHHS, you can read their annual report. The IIHHS site also provides a better understanding of all the goings-on at the Institute. If you're now wondering how you or your students might join in these community-sustaining efforts, Director Linda Plitt-Donaldson "would be delighted to talk with you about how you could join our efforts to support our neighbors in the Commonwealth." You can contact her directly at

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