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Going Global with the Renfield Award

How one foundation has partnered with Penn Nursing to change women’s health.

The term “women’s health” covers a lot of ground, from routine gynecological care to female genital mutilation surgery and treatment. It is the desire to recognize dedicated leaders and transformational efforts in this broad field that led the Beatrice Renfield Foundation to establish the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health, an award given every two years that comes with a $100,000 cash prize.

2018’s recipient, Dr. Vandana Gopikumar of India, is the co-founder of The Banyan and The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health in Chennai. Gopikumar has been instrumental in treating women experiencing mental health disorders and homelessness, a population often ignored in India. Over the past 25 years, she and her team have helped more than ten thousand people with mental health issues in India to reintegrate into society.

Penn Nursing recently sat in on a conversation between Dr. Gopikumar and Alison Ercole, Nu’11, GNu’14 Penn Nursing’s first Global Fellow. As part of Ercole’s work as a Global Fellow, she collaborated with The Banyan to develop a training curriculum for Community Mental Health Workers (CMHW) who coordinate local efforts to address the needs of this overlooked population of women. It has been so successful the Indian government is now discussing the possibility of scaling up the program to a national level. What follows is a condensed version of their chat.

Alison: What was it like for you to find that you’d been selected for the Renfield Award?

Vandana: I was overwhelmed, excited, inspired, humbled and grateful, all at the same time. Dean Villarruel called to share the news, and it took awhile for me to believe that I was hearing her right. Every honor I receive is recognition of the commitment of my colleagues, our organization’s palpable passion, and—most importantly—the grittiness, strength, and wisdom that our service users at The Banyan demonstrate and share.

Alison: Speaking of The Banyan, your work there and with The Banyan Academy of Leadership had already been successful before you won the award, but being selected made a tangible impact on your work—especially the $100,000 prize. How has it changed things?

Vandana: It very much helped advance our work and, in many ways, made it stronger and more visible in the global mental health discourse. The prize money was entirely invested to help with the design of the Emergency Care and Recovery Centre that will promote end-to-end servicing for those living with severe mental disorders in low resource settings. We believe that mental hospitals need a paradigm shift in care and development of protocols.

Alison: Visiting you again this year to help finalize and launch the rollout of the Community Mental Health Workers (CMHW) training gave me a lot of insight into the importance of such work in the area, but tell me—what’s the biggest barrier to The Banyan’s efforts right now?

Vandana: Organizationally, that would be resources. We are a small team engaged in many activities, driven largely by passion. Securing additional resources would help us sprout wings and be more creative in our developing and testing solutions. From a systems perspective, the biggest barriers are the very nature of health systems in most low resource settings and the limited attention they receive.

Alison: Your organization grew from a two-bedroom house where you and your co-founder lived and ate alongside the rescued women. Now your organization reaches over 10,000 people. Over the past 25 years, how have you sustained your principles and mission statement over this much growth?

Vandana: By being clear in our vision that our primary goal is to improve every single life that we come in contact with. It translates into a principle that we hold very close to our hearts and work: provision of person-centered care. We ardently pursue the goals of normalization, participation, co-creation of knowledge, and personal recovery. This is what inspires hope in all of us and keeps us engaged and resilient.

Alison: I know that it has inspired hope in me! What are the most exciting projects on the horizon for The Banyan?

Vandana: We are attempting to scale some of our innovations, including the Emergency Care and Recovery Centre that helps homeless individuals access care in a humane, caring, and therapeutic environment. Tamil Nadu’s government has adopted this approach and replicated it in five districts, and we may do something similar with the government of Kerala as well, with support from the Azeem Premji Philanthropic Initiatives. Similarly, “Home Again,” which enables those with severe disabilities to access community living options, is now being implemented in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra.

Alison: This kind of innovation really speaks to Penn Nursing’s Innovating for Life and Living campaign, taking on the status quo by doing things differently.

Ercole (top right) with Banyan staff.Ercole (top right) with Banyan staff.Vandana: Oh, yes. We at The Banyan are mental health change-makers because we believe that trained mental health professionals and facilitators are essential agents in bridging the care gap. In addition to our partnership with Penn, the TVS Sundram Fasteners Limited Centre for Social Action and Research located at The Banyan Academy (BALM) and the BALM-Tata Institute of Social Sciences collaboration will help in developing passionate and skilled human service professionals.

Alison: One last question. If you could give the next person selected to receive the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health advice on what to expect, what would that be?

Vandana: Well, you can expect to engage in exciting and collaborative work, so it’s important to keep the channel of communication open. Penn Nursing has a wide network to tap into. We lucked out and had the kind, attentive, and dynamic Wendy [Wendy Grube, PhD, Director of Penn Nursing’s Center for Global Women’s Health] driving this collaboration and, of course, you—you have been a super committed Global Fellow. We worked as one team after a point; so prepare to make friends and foster a real partnership. Dean Villarruel was also keen to not have the award be a one-off event but for it to translate into something even more meaningful and long term, which it has in our case. Penn Nursing considered itself our partner in making a difference in the area of global women’s health.

To learn more about the Penn Nursing Renfield Award, visit