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Student Volunteers Solve Real-World Problems

Health Leads information sessions today and tomorrow


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 who worked last summer with Health Leads, a nonprofit that trains college students how to connect low-income patients with the 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, the Joel and Barbara Alpert Professor of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine. Onie, who had been providing legal aid to families with housing problems, realized that health issues were linked to many of her cases.

She saw that “the problem was much further upstream,” says Monica Sawhney, the former development associate 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 she called him about volunteer opportunities. Instead, he invited her to hang out with the partnership’s lawyer and speak with other doctors at Boston Medical Center’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 more than 150 students to Boston Health Leads clinical programs 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 and MED instructor 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 Boston, non-profit social work, Boston University, Harvard University. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky  for Boston University Photography.

Health Leads Boston, non-profit social work, Boston University, Harvard University. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston University Photography.

Health Leads will celebrate its two-year anniversary at the Codman Square Health Center this month. At the Codman Square 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.

The unpaid volunteers attend a week of intense training that prepares them for the work ahead and receive ongoing training and support throughout their service. 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 work two and a half hour shifts at Health Leads offices typically log 20 hours a week during the summer and up to half that during the school year. Depending on the time of year, each volunteer juggles between 10 and 20 clients. From September 2011 through August 2012, Boston Health Leads advocates worked with about 1,900 clients.

This work “is something that doesn’t get the amount of respect it deserves,” says health sciences major Najjar. “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. 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 the 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.”

For those interested in becoming an advocate, Health Leads is hosting two information sessions on BU’s Charles River Campus, today, Tuesday, September 11, and tomorrow, Wednesday, September 12, both from 7 to 8 p.m. at Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Ave., Room 220. For more information, contact Sarah Heerboth (CAS’14), a university coordinator for Health Leads at BU, at heerboth@bu.edu.

A version of this story was originally published on August 5, 2011.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

2 Comments on Student Volunteers Solve Real-World Problems

  • Gabriel on 08.09.2011 at 10:19 am

    This program looks really interesting and quite beneficient for the community. Does anyone know how to apply to such a program?

  • jasmine on 09.11.2012 at 1:44 pm

    Go on the website healthleadsusa.org go under contacts and find Allison Quinn. She’s an awesome person and would love to talk to you about HealthLeads. I did this program last summer and it was an amazing experience. It also runs during the academic year.

    Best of luck!

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