Soon after being founded in 2003, the HEAL’s mission was established and recognize that many local organizations are doing important work yet are unable to expand their impact and often struggle to remain operating due to a severe lack of human, financial, and technical resources. To address these challenges, the HEAL has transformed the traditional university research and training model by:
- building authentic community-university partnerships;
- involving staff and students in impactful projects with community partners as meaningful opportunities to develop skills and knowledge; and
- offering community partners HEAL expertise and labour to help meet their evolving needs, build capacity, and broaden impact
Professor Gilliland is an early innovator and an internationally-respected leader in the increasingly popular educational approaches of community-engaged learning. The HEAL refers to this approach as Community Geography, which Gilliland defines as “research and knowledge mobilization activities involving collaboration and participation of those of an area affected by an issue for purposes of education and action toward affecting positive (social, economic, or environmental) change”. The HEAL team has applied this approach to tackle some of the most critical issues in the world today, such as childhood obesity, climate change, food security, and social inequity.
The HEAL places enormous value on community service. Since 2003, nearly 500 trainees, including grad students, undergrads, and high school co-op interns have been employed in the HEAL. During their time in the HEAL, students volunteer directly with community organizations and/or contribute to projects in service of the community. It is estimated that HEAL members have donated the equivalent of well over $2 million in volunteer resources to community organizations. In summary, the HEAL has creatively overcome challenges in the London area through authentic and meaningful collaborations with community partners, instilling a sense of local responsibility and volunteerism in all HEAL members, and persevering in the face of evolving demands and low resource availability.
Among the many community projects the HEAL has undertaken is the administration of the ACT-i-Pass program, which distributes passes to Grade 5 students in London, providing free access to indoor sports, skating and swimming, and other activities. The purpose of the program is to increase a child’s ability to participate in physical activity. A recent journal article evaluated the success of the project and found that the program was effective in increasing physical activity levels, especially for children in urban areas.
In 2019, the HEAL was honoured as a Finalist for the Pillar Nonprofit Network‘s Community Innovation Award. The Community Innovation award recognizes organizations that develop new and better ways to address a need in the community despite the many demands and sometimes too few resources. Nominees have found innovative, creative and efficient solutions to make a difference in the lives of others. Their innovative efforts have had a positive impact on the community.