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In Hospitals, Students to the Rescue

Volunteers fill void when more than medical care is needed

| From BU Today | By Leslie Friday

Shakeela Najjar (SAR’12) with Health Leads client Jeremy Alston at the Codman Square Health Center. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Shakeela Najjar remembers one of her toughest cases, a woman who came into her office at Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center in tears. The woman’s electricity had been shut off for three days during a record hot summer, taking her asthmatic daughter’s nebulizer out of commission and spoiling a refrigerator’s worth of food. Najjar (SAR’12) gave her information on local food pantries and faxed a shut-off protection letter to NSTAR.

It wasn’t a magic fix, but it was a start down the right path. “It sounds so simple, just to get your lights back on,” says Najjar. When she started at the center, she says, she “never anticipated these sorts of things.”

Najjar is one of 30 BU and 20 Harvard students working this summer with Health Leads, a nonprofit that trains college students in how to connect low-income patients with basic resources they need to stay healthy. Students juggle requests that range from housing and unemployment to finding child care or dentures for their clients. And they do it all with a telephone, a computer, a well-developed list of resources, and a lot of creativity.

“They fill a pretty important information gap,” says Eliza Wilson, the Dorchester clinic’s Health Leads program manager.

Formerly Project HEALTH, Health Leads was cofounded in 1996 by Rebecca Onie, then a student at Harvard, and Barry Zuckerman, Joel and Barbara Alpert Professor of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine and chair of pediatrics, and chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. Onie, who had been providing legal aid to families with housing problems, realized that health issues were linked to many of her cases.

Onie saw that “the problem was much further upstream,” says Monica Sawhney, the operations coordinator for Health Leads Boston. “If you could tackle some of these social issues within the health care realm, you might be able to prevent a lot of these things from happening down the road.”

Onie had read about Zuckerman’s work at the Medical-Legal Partnership, which he founded to give free legal advice to patients who can’t afford a lawyer, and called him about volunteer opportunities. Instead, he invited her to hang out with the partnership’s lawyer and speak with other doctors at BMC’s pediatric department. She did, and several months later she asked Zuckerman to help her think about ways that college students could help BMC patients.

Zuckerman’s only question, he says, was, “Do you think you can find them and get them to come here?” The answer was yes.

Last year alone, BU and Harvard sent 100 students to Boston Health Leads offices in BMC’s pediatric, obstetrics/gynecology, and nursery departments, the Codman Square Health Center, and the Dimock Center in Roxbury. The nonprofit has also expanded to five other cities across the United States.

BMC pediatrician Genevieve Preer says Health Leads volunteers have helped parents of her patients find a job and told them about free neighborhood swimming classes, among other things. “I can’t imagine our practice without them,” she says.

Health Leads will celebrate its one-year anniversary at the Codman Square Health Center in September.

At the Codman Square Health Center, Najjar and Casey Fox (CAS’12) sit just off the clinic’s second floor waiting room. Fox fields a phone call from a new client, while Najjar talks to Jeremy Alston, who needs information about shelters that might house him and his girlfriend.

Volunteers, who are unpaid but get free housing in their university’s dorms, attend a week of intense training that prepares them for the work ahead. They learn the organization’s database, the various resources for food, housing, and utility assistance (the top three requests at Codman), and how to follow up with families who have no permanent residence or have had their phone disconnected.

There’s also a good deal of learning on the ground. The two students who staff Health Leads offices on three-hour shifts throughout the day typically log 20 hours a week during the summer, half that during the school year. Depending on the time of year, each volunteer juggles between 10 and 20 clients. As of early July, Codman Square volunteers had already attended to more than 600 people.

Social work “is something that doesn’t get the amount of respect it deserves,” says Najjar, a health sciences major. “It takes a toll, emotionally. It’s not a nine-to-five job, where you leave and you forget about it.”

That’s why volunteers meet once a week in peer-to-peer support groups to discuss tough cases and share strategies. But, as Codman's Wilson says, “It helps to know which to tackle and which to send to a doctor, lawyer, or psychiatrist.”

Nevertheless, 58 percent of Codman Square cases have a happy ending. Najjar tells of helping a college-aged woman enter a summer job-training program. And Fox says that with her help, another client was able to find an affordable local summer camp for her children.

And by the end of the summer, the volunteers themselves have learned something equally important. Says Fox: “We really can help.”

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