Spotlight: Students work to improve underprivileged children’s health

Eight-year old asthma patient Fabricio sits by the YMCA pool with a broken arm gazing at his friends and Project Health volunteers playing in the water.

“I really like the asthma program because we get to learn to swim in the pool,” Fabricio said.

Fabricio is just one participant in Project Health, a community service program designed to revolutionize the way America’s healthcare system is operated. Through education, exercise training and tutoring this exclusively undergraduate-run organization helps low-income children and their families improve their health.

GW became affiliated with the program last summer. Twenty-five GW students volunteer for the program and more than 230 students at Harvard, Brown and Columbia are members. Funding from the America’s Promise and the Novelties Foundation made the D.C. chapter possible.

Project Health Site Director Kunal Merchant works at Children’s National Medical Center and is responsible for supervising the D.C. chapter of the program. He oversees the development of the organization on campus, in hospitals and in the D.C. community.

“Health isn’t just what happens in the examination room for most children; health is also what happens in class, in after-school programs and at home,” Merchant said. “Too often this is under emphasized by the current healthcare system. Project Health believes we should extend the scope of health care and redefine what health really means.”

Rebecca Onie started Project Health five years ago at Harvard University. Frustrated with the lack of community service opportunities at her school, she contacted Dr. Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, about starting a volunteer program. Onie and Zuckerman began a pilot program by researching, recruiting students and finding mentors for the program.

Onie envisioned three central aspects for the program’s success: service, mentorship and reflection. Service consists of the volunteer work. Mentorship is the guidance students receive from professionals in the field, and reflection, Onie said, is the most challenging and rewarding. It allows members to communicate what they learned and express what they are feeling.

GW volunteers said it can be hard to help children knowing the background and daily hardships they face.

Freshman Sheryl Jaffe said she feels like she is making a difference working with underprivileged children

“Volunteering and working in the community is really important to me,” Jaffe said. “I feel strongly about social services and health advocacy. Working with children combines all of this.”

The program currently provides two services: the Family Help Desk in Children’s National Medical Center and the Asthma Swimming Program at the Anthony Bowen YMCA in Adams Morgan.

The Family Help Desk is designed to broaden the extent of care provided by an urban hospital. Students connect families to resources in their communities. D.C. offers many social services and agencies that target low-income families, but residents often are unaware of them.

Project Health volunteers working with a family in need of food may refer the family to food pantries such as Bread for the City or help the family complete a food stamp application. More than 40 families have been involved in the program since it started this fall.

The Help Desk offers information on child care, immigration, cash assistance, health insurance, job training, housing, food assistance and adult education. Dr. Ben Gitterman and clinical social worker Allyson Shaffer work with mentors to meet families’ needs.

Junior Kelley Danielle Urry, a Help Desk volunteer, works directly with families referred to the program.

“We work hands-on with people from parts of the D.C. community that GW students generally don’t have the opportunity to interact with,” Urry said. “The first week on the job was a bit intimidating. We sat across from families who needed more help than I had expected.”

Senior Beth Nauman said the experience opened her eyes to the serious health care issues not only in D.C, but all over the country.

“D.C. is representative of any urban city with the problems facing kids and their families,” Nauman said. “We work with mentors and doctors to teach these families that health is a part of their lives. Through the Help Desk they learn that everyday practices are part of their overall well being and good health.”

The Help Desk is located in the hospital. Physicians and nurses often refer their patients’ families to the program. Flyers are also distributed in the waiting rooms of the hospital to attract additional families in need of assistance.

Project Health also sponsors the Asthma Swimming Program. It is aimed at both teaching children about their asthma as well as teaching them how to swim. Dr. Kathleen Kadow and Dr. Carla Sguigna mentor the student volunteers about asthma. The students then relay what they have learned to the children, who are between 7 and eleven years old.

Project Health volunteers use coloring books and cut outs to explain what happens in the children’s lungs when they have an asthma attack. After the classroom part of the project the children and volunteers jump into the pool and start swimming.

Merchant said studies show that regular swimming can strengthen the children’s lung capacity, which can prove extremely beneficial for asthmatics, sometimes even more so than leading medications.

Senior Natalie Fabian said she has formed a special bond with all of the children in the Asthma Swim Program.

“You put something into this program and you definitely get something out of it,” Fabian said. “I feel like those (asthma swim children) are my kids, if something happened to them I don’t know what I would do.”

The volunteers pick up the participating children from their elementary schools and transport them to the YMCA. Parents later pickup their children after the classroom and swimming portion of the program.

Merchant said the term “double jeopardy” describes the cycle between poor health and poverty. He said low-income families are at a higher risk for certain health problems such as asthma. If these children do not have access to health care, their symptoms worsen.

Project Health tries to interrupt the cycle of “double jeopardy,” by helping make health care more accessible to all families. Merchant said he would like to see hospitals become “one-stop shops” where families receive health care in a broader sense through programs like the Family Help Desk.

Both Family Help Desk and Asthma Swim volunteers meet once a week in small reflection sessions to plan, learn the curriculum for the week and discuss their progress.

Help Desk Program Coordinator Andy Choi, a junior, said he hopes to become a doctor one day. He said about half the student volunteers are pre-med. He spent his summer working to help coordinate the program and establish ties in D.C.

“My previous work in community service wasn’t very fulfilling, ” Choi said. “Project Health is a neat way to interact with people and look at other aspects of what goes into medicine. I was frustrated with health problems in cities. I wondered where to go to tackle these issues and what could be done to help these families.”

Choi said he believes that students are the best volunteers for the program because they have both the education and time to help these children and their families.

In the future Project Health hopes to extend its focus to low-income families living across the D.C. metropolitan area and, educate children suffering from other health problems such as HIV, sickle cell anemia, obesity and diabetes.

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