Once a month at the House of Ruth in East Baltimore, a group of women gather in a room with tube socks and lunch bags full of dried rice. Not accouterments of some nouveau recipe, the items are supplies for an aromatherapy workshop.
The class is led by Christiani Guerrero, an undergraduate at the School of Nursing and one of 14 current Baltimore Schweitzer Fellows. As part of her fellowship, Guerrero is developing a wellness program for the House of Ruth, a shelter for women and children seeking refuge from abusive homes. The other wellness classes she administers include ones on nutrition, exercise and child safety.
Guerrero says aromatherapy offers just one way for these women to relax and relieve some of their daily aches and pains. The socks are used as vessels for rice that has been scented with fragrance, such as lavender or eucalyptus. Worn around the neck, this aromatic footwear, either heated or chilled, can be used to help relieve stress, aid in sleep or fight symptoms of the common cold. Guerrero says those who attend the workshop often start off skeptical of the nontraditional therapy but leave with a whole new outlook.
"Now they can't wait to go," says Guerrero, a Peace Corps member prior to coming to Hopkins. "I wasn't sure how it was going to take off, but it has actually been the most popular class. We are always running out of supplies."
Guerrero began her work at the House of Ruth in June and since then has forged many relationships with the women and children who walk through the facility's doors. She had volunteered at the shelter before her fellowship, but her experience this past year has made her feel like a "fully integrated" member of the East Baltimore community, she says.
"They come to me after the workshops to tell me how much they enjoyed it, or just to talk. I feel a part of their lives," Guerrero says. "It has been a great learning experience for me so far; I'm so thankful for this opportunity."
The Baltimore Schweitzer Fellows Program, begun in 1999, is a yearlong fellowship open to all Baltimore-area students enrolled in a graduate program in the health and human services fields, in schools of medicine, public health, nursing, social work, dentistry, pharmacy and law. Fellows work with a Baltimore community agency and carry out a service project of at least 200 direct service hours.
The current group of fellows comprises seven students from the Johns Hopkins health schools and seven from the University of Maryland. The students are working in such places as health clinics, senior residential homes, community agencies and elementary schools. Projects range from immunization-tracking programs to literacy programs targeted at youth.
A noted theologian, philosopher and physician, Albert Schweitzer spent the better part of his life serving his fellow man, especially those he felt were underserved. The Nobel Peace Prize winner is perhaps best known for the hospital he founded in Lambarene, Gabon, and his "reverence for life" philosophy. Schweitzer once wrote, "If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself." Schweitzer died in Lambarene in 1965.
To honor his legacy, in 1992 the U.S. Schweitzer Fellows Program was founded. In addition to Baltimore, similar programs exist in Boston, Chicago, New Hampshire/Vermont, New York, North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
The Baltimore program is currently directed by Lee Bone, an associate public health professor at the School of Public Health, and guided by a board of directors. Bone, who was instrumental in bringing the program to Baltimore, says the fellowship is an opportunity for students across disciplines to work together in a service-learning model.
"The program takes people who have a sort of untapped idealism and converts that idealism into a very concrete contribution to the community," Bone says. "The work they do also gives them a lot of insight into themselves."
Kavita Pillay, another 2000-2001 Schweitzer fellow, says it's easy to get caught up in the volunteer work.
Pillay's service project takes place at the Rose Street Community Center. She works with children ages 6 to 16 in enhancing their literacy skills through activities such as journal writing, poetry writing and putting on plays. On weekends, Pillay sometimes takes the children to plays or museums. Recently, her group of 30 kids planted daffodils in a community garden. For many of these children, Pillay says, their family situation is in flux, so the attention and support they receive at the center is precious.
"The time we spend with them, maybe one or two hours a day, is perhaps the only quality one-on-one time they get with an adult that day," says Pillay, a student in the School of Public Health. "I just love interacting with these kids; they are so quick to attach to you."
In addition to a $2,000 stipend, fellows receive guidance and support for their projects through monthly meetings and interaction with board members and their academic and site advisers. During the monthly meetings, fellows report on their progress and hear what the other students are doing.
"There is a building of camaraderie at these meetings, and the students obtain a better understanding of each other's disciplines," Bone says.
Each year, the fellows organize two city-wide symposia on health- and human service-related topics. Upon completion of their projects, fellows must submit a written final report and then present their work to students and faculty at their school.
Applicants for the fellowships are required to submit an original proposal that details how their project will service the unmet needs of the community. Winning proposals are selected by an advisory board made up of community leaders, directors of community organizations and faculty and administration at participating schools. The deadline for applications for the 2001-2002 program is March 1, 2001.
Although all of this year's fellows are from Hopkins and Maryland, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland is also an active participant.
The local program is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Baltimore Community Foundation Cooper Family Fund, the Chesapeake Health Plan Foundation, advisory board members and the president's offices of both The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.
Bone said the cooperation between the two schools has been both healthy and productive.
"I am a Baltimorean and public health is my passion, so from my perspective, in order to improve the health of this city we need to have these two universities working together at times. And this [endeavor] was a very appropriate occasion," Bone says. "This program also directly fits into President Brody's Urban Health Initiative as it serves to improve the lives of those in the East Baltimore community."
Bone says it's important to note that the projects the fellows start are not intended to end when their 200 service hours are fulfilled. In fact, fellows are encouraged to sustain a relationship with their host sites and to recruit other students to support their work.
Rachel Bluebond-Langner, a second-year student at the School of Medicine, has involved 19 classmates in her service project at the Maternity Center East. Bluebond-Langner is coordinating a pregnancy partnership program that matches pregnant teens with medical students. The pairs meet weekly for such activities as prenatal visits, Lamaze classes, shopping trips or going to the movies. The pregnancy partnership program was developed by a previous Schweitzer fellow.
Likewise, Guerrero says she hopes when she graduates to be able to pass the wellness program on to another Hopkins student.
"But I am going to stay here at the House of Ruth for as long as I'm in Baltimore," she says. "This experience enhances your life and the lives of others, and isn't that what it's all about?"