Program provides Rx for life

Clinic's health advice comes with dose of helpful resources

December 29, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

Scheronda Gilliam took her son to the Harriet Lane Clinic in East Baltimore to make sure he was healthy. But besides medical advice for her baby, Gilliam received tips about GED classes and job training for herself, information that could help her son as well.

"I want to make a better person of myself," said Gilliam, a 33-year-old janitor who would rather work with computers.

Helping Gilliam to reach her technology goal were Sam Zand and Dan Cataldo, Johns Hopkins University students who are volunteers with Project Health, a program that connects disenfranchised and low-income adults with public benefits such as medical care, housing and education.

Project Health, which started in Boston, has spread to a handful of cities in recent years.

Baltimore's program is one of the newest. It started in the fall with a class of 20 volunteers, and is expected to expand in the new year with an influx of volunteers from Loyola College and Morgan State University. Help desk sites are also expected to open, including some at local drug treatment centers.

"The program lines up a tremendous resource against a tremendous need," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, who learned about Project Health when he was doing his pediatric residency at a hospital in Boston. Project Health was started by Harvard University graduate Rebecca Onie, who still runs the program out of Boston Medical Center.

Sharfstein said he encouraged Onie to expand Project Health to Baltimore, where for the first time in the nonprofit's history, the program is being managed by a public health agency, not a hospital's pediatric offices. Funds to cover Project Health's first two years of operations in Baltimore - $250,000 total - will come from local groups, including the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation, and the Open Society Institute.

"To be able to line up the energy of these college students with people who desperately need help is like hitting the public health jackpot," Sharfstein said.

Most Project Health volunteers are undergraduate or graduate students with an interest in public health, medicine or social work. They take turns manning the help desk at the Harriet Lane Clinic - a Johns Hopkins medical facility that serves children and adolescents - from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. They meet Wednesday nights to talk about their experiences and brainstorm new ways to help clients and their families.

The site director for Project Health in Baltimore is 25-year-old Mark Marino, a former Peace Corps volunteer who did community health projects in Burkina Faso in West Africa. Marino said he wasn't sure what reaction he would get from local college students, but it has been very strong so far.

"We had 70 people show up for one information session," Marino said.

For volunteers, the experience of working with clinic doctors and social workers represents an opportunity to sample career possibilities and network with professionals who might be able to advise them on graduate schools and degree programs. There's also the added bonus of connecting with other young people with similar ideals and aspirations. Some volunteers say they intend to keep in touch with their help desk colleagues.

"People are excited about the program," said Zand, a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins student from the Los Angeles area who is studying public health. "It seems like a great opportunity."

At the Family Help Desk on a recent afternoon, Zand and Cataldo, a 22-year-old Johns Hopkins graduate student from New Jersey, asked Gilliam to fill out a short questionnaire. After reviewing the document, they searched through a database of public assistance programs to find the right ones for Gilliam. They then provided her with the telephone numbers and addresses of a dozen or so programs that might help her get her General Education Development diploma as well as subsidized day-care for her year-old son, Delvin Lambert.

When the young men were finished, Gilliam was clearly impressed.

"This is really helpful," she said.

Zand and Cataldo said they would follow up with a telephone call to Gilliam in a few days. They also printed out a report on the referrals they had provided the woman - a document they will share with her baby's doctors as well.

The wraparound care, a social services philosophy that is also used in treating recovering drug addicts and formerly homeless individuals, seems to be working, said Dr. Barry Solomon, associate director of the Harriet Lane Clinic and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"A lot of the families we work with need help with these sorts of issues," said Solomon, whose clinic staff includes social workers and a lawyer who helps families with legal matters.

Solomon said doctors at the clinic - most of whom are pediatric residents from the medical school - are learning about social services they never knew existed. He said they are eager to see their patients' family lives improve because they understand the connection between good health and a healthy home life.

Said Solomon: "Everyone realizes that this is a great resource."

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