January 10, 2011

Connecting families and resources

Health Leads volunteers help patients obtain food, shelter and more

Staffing the Family Resource Desk at the Harriet Lane Clinic recently were Health Leads volunteers Johnson Ukken, Shayla Nagy, Kyle Engelmann and Serena Yin, all undergraduates on the Homewood campus. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Kyle Engelmann enrolled at Johns Hopkins with a specific goal in mind: to get the best possible education in preparation for medical school.

But those plans changed during his very first semester, when he became a volunteer with a program called Health Leads (formerly known as Project Health), a nationwide community service organization that involves college students in helping low-income individuals and families obtain food, clothing, shelter, child care, job training and other services as an essential part of their health care treatment.

Though the senior neuroscience and public health studies major still plans to dedicate his career to helping people, he may not be doing it as a physician. Instead, Engelmann aims to work full time professionally for the organization for which he has volunteered hundreds of hours since his freshman year.

“I joined Health Leads in my first semester to get some familiarity with the health care field, and the experiences were so powerful that they caused me to change direction a bit,” said Engelmann, a native of New Jersey. “After a lot of reflection and long discussions with my family, I came to the realization that I would be happiest working for Health Leads. Higher learning isn’t off the table, but I feel so passionately about my work that I’d like to continue with it after I graduate.”

Once you become familiar with Health Leads’ mission and impact, it’s easy to understand Engelmann’s enthusiasm. Last year, the organization trained and deployed nearly 700 college student volunteers (84 from Johns Hopkins, representing majors ranging from biomedical engineering and neuroscience to art history and international relations), who connected about 6,000 low-income patients with necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and medical insurance, not to mention child care and job training. These specially trained volunteers—located in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Providence, R.I., and Washington, D.C.– interact with patients through emergency rooms, community health centers and prenatal and pediatric clinics, including the Harriet Lane Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center outpatient facility where Engelmann volunteers.

There, he and other Johns Hopkins students spend hours weekly at the Family Resource Desk, a centrally located area equipped with computers and comfortable seats where the student volunteers sit down with the clinic’s patients and their families to help them locate critical resources aimed at filling needs identified by the patients and their physicians during medical checkups and appointments. Armed with doctor-written “prescriptions” for food, clothing, shelter and more, the patients approach the Family Resource Desk for assistance.

“What we say at Health Leads is that every day doctors prescribe antibiotics and medicines to people who are living in cars or have no food or heat at home and for whom that medicine is only a small piece of the whole health and wellness puzzle,” said Mark Marino, Baltimore executive director for Health Leads. “So through Health Leads, doctors ‘prescribe’ these basic needs and send their patients to the desk, staffed by well-trained Health Leads volunteers. The concept sounds so simple, and it is. But you know what? It really works.”

According to Marino, nearly 60 percent of the patients who seek help through Health Leads find that at least one of their most critical needs—heat, food, job training—is met within 90 days of getting their “prescription.” And volunteers don’t stop there: They keep in touch with their clients for several months to ensure that things are working out, and to identify and resolve any new and crucial problems as well.

“Through Health Leads, we students are able to work closely with the professional health care team to ensure that when the patients leave the clinic and go back out into the community, they are empowered to pursue the basic things that they need to truly be healthy,” Engelmann said, with obvious pride. “We are part of the loop between the clinic and the community.”

That enthusiasm, pride and energy are what make college students such ideal Health Leads volunteers, Marino said.

“Students are our main work force, and that’s not as much about them being free [labor] as it is about them being smart, tenacious and imbued with a healthy disregard for the kind of red tape that sometimes stands in the way of our clients being connected with the services that they so badly need,” Marino said. “College students won’t typically just accept no for an answer. They become very invested in helping their clients, and the results are great.”

Most Johns Hopkins students take their commitment to Health Leads and its mission so seriously that they spend at least two academic years with the organization, working out of either the Harriet Lane Clinic or one of the two clinics connected to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. (One is an outpatient pediatric clinic serving a primarily Latino-Hispanic population, and the other is connected to the Emergency Department.) Some, like Engelmann, end up volunteering throughout their entire four years at Johns Hopkins.

Competition for those volunteer positions is stiff, with more than 100 students applying last fall alone for 38 open positions. (The remaining 46 were filled with students already working for the organization.)

“At Johns Hopkins, it’s very competitive to become part of the Health Leads team,” Marino confirmed.

Barry Solomon, medical director of the Harriet Lane Clinic and an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said he is impressed with the student volunteers’ commitment and dedication.

“We have been extremely fortunate to have Health Leads in the Harriet Lane Clinic for the past four years, and the student volunteers have become an incredible resource for our patients, families and clinic staff,” he said. “The students work tirelessly to help link families to community resources, but they [also] do an amazing job in following up with our patients and serving as patient advocates. Our clinic has a wonderful interdisciplinary staff, and Health Leads has become a member of the family in helping us provide compassionate, comprehensive, family-centered care.”

The students insist that they get as much out of their volunteer hours as do the clients.

“I’ve learned so much, and not only about the great need that is out there. I’ve also learned that I came into this with some stereotyped, preconceived notions about people that aren’t true,” said Vanessa Charubhumi, a junior neuroscience major from East Elmhurst, N.Y. “Being part of Health Leads has been a real eye-opener, not only about people and their challenges but also about all the programs out there to help people in a real, tangible way. It feels great to be able to make a difference in these people’s lives.”

Madeline Fryer, a freshman public health studies major from Westborough, Mass., who began volunteering in the fall, said she believes that her work with Health Leads will make her a better doctor someday.

“I want to be a primary care physician, and I think that having seen this side of things will make me more sensitive and more attentive and better able to care for my patients,” she said. “Doctors can’t always spend as much time with each patient as they would like, and this has let me get a better look at the challenges that some patients have. I can’t help but think that will make me a better doctor in the long run and more attentive to my patients’ needs.”

As for Engelmann, well, his four years with Health Leads actually changed his career plans.

“I want to make a difference in the lives of people who need it, and this seems like the best way to do that,” he said.