Dan Cataldo says it took less than two hours on the
job to fully understand the value of Project Health, a
national volunteer program for undergraduates that was
introduced to Baltimore this fall. That's all it took for
him to help his first client.
Cataldo is one of 20 area students taking part in the
program that seeks to provide sustained public health
interventions in partnership with urban medical centers,
universities and community organizations.
Founded in 1996 by 10 Harvard University
undergraduates as a pilot program at Boston Medical Center,
the program today involves physicians, families and
volunteers in five cities, including hundreds of students
from Harvard, Brown, Columbia, New York University, George
Washington and now Johns Hopkins and Loyola.
The program unites its partner agencies and schools to
provide underserved families with a total package of
services. It acts as a hub through which these institutions
develop integrated strategies to meet the complex medical
and social needs of the community's children and
Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore City health commissioner,
helped bring Project Health to the city and have it work in
partnership with the Baltimore Health Department and
Baltimore HealthCare Access.
The first wave of Baltimore volunteers, 17 from JHU
and three from Loyola College, all currently work at the
Harriet Lane Clinic, an outpatient facility of the
Hopkins Children's Center that annually cares for
approximately 7,500 children and adolescents from East
Baltimore. Specifically, the students, who began their
service on Oct. 23, staff the "family health desk," which
serves as a point of intervention to connect the clinic's
patients and their families with critical resources and
services, such as food, housing and childcare.
It was on Cataldo's first shift at the clinic that a
woman in her 30s came to the help desk nearly in tears. She
told him how she had just broken up with her boyfriend, had
to move out and was desperate to find ways to support
herself and her young son.
Cataldo says that he was able to direct the woman, who
was unemployed, to cash assistance, job training, medical
insurance and housing programs for which she would be
"It felt very gratifying," says Cataldo, a Johns
Hopkins graduate student in biology whose fervent desire to
participate in the program allowed him to join the
undergraduates. "She really needed us. Everything we
offered was exactly what she was looking for. She got
pretty emotional and told us how glad she was that we were
there. It's a great feeling to actually see the results,
and on my first day."
Project Health's lead founder — then Harvard
sophomore Rebecca Onie, working with Barry Zuckerman, a
professor at Boston University School of Medicine and a
pediatrician at Boston Medical Center — set out to
confront barriers to proper health faced by low-income
families and to engage undergraduates in intense,
Between 1996 and 1998, Project Heath launched its
first activities, including the family help desk; an asthma
swimming program; a girls fitness and nutrition program;
and Strive, a social and educational after-school program
for teens with sickle cell disease.
Since 1998, the program has been expanded to four
other cities, New York, Providence, Washington, D.C., and,
most recently, Baltimore. Each year, more than 300 college
students devote 75,000 volunteer hours to Project Health
Mark Marino of Baltimore HealthCare Access, city site
director for Project Health, says that Johns Hopkins was
chosen as a university partner because of its reputation
for excellence and its renowned medical and public health
Marino says that in their volunteer roles, the
students serve as advocates for the patients and their
families, providing them as much information as possible
using a database of local services that have been screened
and have proven track records. The volunteers also help
fill out necessary applications, contact agencies directly
and conduct follow-up phone calls to their clients to make
sure they are getting the assistance they need.
"We give [students] the freedom to get as involved
with these people as much as they want and feel comfortable
with," Marino says.
Sam Zand, a senior majoring in public health studies
at JHU and the program's student co-coordinator, says that
Project Health has provided him the perfect way to apply
the knowledge he's learned in class and make a difference
"We are not just a referral desk. We are teaching
people how to work a system that can be convoluted," Zand
says. "It's not always easy to access resources, even if
you know about them. Our main goals are to teach the
patient how the system works, find the right person to talk
to and find out which services are the best."
Zand says he and his fellow volunteers also want to be
in a position to hold the services accountable if they are
"We want to know if [the client was] told to come back
later or felt pushed aside," he says.
The students, who sign up for a year's service, work
one two-hour shift a week and also take part in a weekly
"reflection" session to discuss their progress and any
issues that arise.
Marino says that future plans for Project Health in
Baltimore include expanding with more students, more
schools and more medical centers.
"In the coming years, we plan to have students in
substance abuse sites, free clinics, community-based
organizations and other places," he says. "One of our goals
is to allow students to get a better understanding of the
needs of Baltimore residents and the community where they
now live. They can also take this experience and apply it
to future goals. Many volunteers go on to medical or law
school, and this program provides them a glimpse into what
they will be doing with their professional lives."
Sonia Sarkar was one of the first students to sign up
for the program and now serves as JHU's Project Health
program coordinator. Sarkar's first referral involved
helping a grandmother obtain more information on
special-education programs for her granddaughter. Sarkar
consulted the database to connect the client with programs
that offered more consistent and comprehensive services
than her granddaughter was currently getting.
Sarkar, a Johns Hopkins sophomore majoring in public
health studies, says her experience so far has been both
fun and rewarding.
"There are a lot of volunteer opportunities around
campus and good organizations to work for, but this program
offered me some hands-on experience in public health
advocacy, and that is something I'm very interested in,"
Sarkar says. "I'm really looking forward to getting the
word out about this great program."