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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 6, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 10
Raising an Army of Public Health Advocates

Welcoming Baltimore's team: Project Health founder Rebecca Onie joins Mark Marino, city site director, and student volunteers at the group's first weekly 'reflection' session, where they discuss progress and issues.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

City health commissioner enlists JHU undergrads to assist the underserved

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

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 families.

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 Johns 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 qualified.

"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, entrepreneurial service.

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 programs.

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 programs.

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 with it.

"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 not delivering.

"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."


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