Health Leads helps patients address personal needs

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Health Leads volunteer Adele Levine ’14 listened to the woman’s story for the first time. 

The woman, whose name was not provided because of patient confidentiality, was a recent refugee from Haiti and a former newspaper editor. But when she came to the United States, her paperwork and diplomas were not deemed valid. 

“It’s such a difficult transition for a lot of recent immigrants to have to start over from scratch and have to navigate this whole different system of resources,” Levine said. Several days later, Levine provided the woman with some basic job searching skills and the location of a community center where she could apply for utilities assistance.

Beyond resources, Levine gave the woman her presence. “We ended up just talking a lot at length – she would express a lot of her frustrations, and I think it was the first time that someone had really listened to her story,” Levine said. “We’re not just machines that connect people to resources – everyone has their own story,” she added. 

Levine volunteers with Health Leads, a national organization founded by a Harvard sophomore in 1996. Health Leads uses a combination of paid staff and trained undergraduate volunteers and coordinators to connect hospital patients with social resources such as food, affordable housing, childcare, health insurance, job training and utilities assistance. The organization currently operates in six cities across the country.


Looking out of ‘the bubble’

Providence volunteers have a desk at the clinic in Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the Pediatric Division of Rhode Island Hospital. The desk is just outside the clinic’s waiting room that offers a mural of whales and a miniature slide for rambunctious children.

Health Leads volunteer Daniela Rojas ’15 was working at the desk Friday evening. After speaking with two patients, she said she could feel her excitement growing. Discovering a way to help clients is always exciting, she said – “being able to make that call and say, ‘Hey, I found this for you.'”

Daniel Gutierrez-Jimenez ’14 once helped a mother of two who had respiratory problems find food pantries and apply for a program that kept her home heated.

“By far it’s the most impactful organization that Brown students can be a part of,” said Samantha Sanders ’13, a former campus coordinator for Health Leads and a current volunteer. 

Sanders spoke of a case that has stayed with her through the years: a father who could not afford to give his children toys for the holidays. Sanders said she spent hours calling all 15 of the Toys for Tots Foundation facilities and finally found one that could help. While she has dealt with clients who had more pressing needs, this was a small example of how volunteering could make a difference to a family, she said.

“I really love it. I think it’s a super wonderful opportunity,” said Levine, who has volunteered for Health Leads in Providence, Boston and New York City. Levine received a C.V. Starr Fellowship from the Swearer Center to work at Health Leads’ national office in Boston this summer. Her work with Health Leads, she said, has led her to explore other social justice and community health-oriented programs.

 “My personal favorite part is meeting with families … and being able to tangibly see their progress,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of programs on campus that allow you to interact with the Providence community and see outside of the College Hill bubble,” Levine said.


‘The real world’

The organization hopes to provide a model for all hospitals, demonstrating the importance of addressing basic needs, said Brian Beachler, operations coordinator for Health Leads. Last year, Health Leads served 1,270 families, he said. 

“We’re tracking how successful we are,” he said. Patients who are interested in participating in the program undergo “a social needs screen for their family to make sure all of their basic needs are being met,” Beachler said. These basic needs are directly related to the individual’s health, and it’s important to address them in a hospital setting, he added.

Health Leads was formerly called Project HEALTH. But as the organization received more national recognition, leaders adopted the new name in 2010 because it conveyed that the organization worked for more than a temporary “project” and because it sounded more professional, Sanders said. 

The name “Health Leads” is a triple entrendre, Sanders explained. Firstly, the organization seeks to create leaders in the healthcare industry. Secondly, health leads everything else in the lives of those the organization works with. Lastly, the name reflects the organization’s actual efforts to give client leads to social resources.

“We don’t just look at people as a number,” Guitierrez-Jimenez said. “It’s real work, real change and real people.” The program is always working for “a better system, a better model,” he said. 

Health Leads expects about 70 Brown students to be involved at the Providence site this year, Beachler said. Volunteers face a time commitment of at least seven hours per week, doing two-and-a-half hour shifts with one or two fellow volunteers. They also attend a weekly program development meeting, a weekly small group meeting for support and are expected to follow up with clients. 

“We want to make sure our volunteers are accountable for the families they’re working with,” Gutierrez-Jimenez said.

Health Leads also provides “a great sense of community,” Gutierrez-Jimenez said, adding that many of his closest friends are from Health Leads.

As a former program coordinator, Gutierrez-Jimenez dedicated around 14 hours a week to Health Leads. “But you enjoy every moment of it,” he said. He may have been guilty of procrastinating on homework, but he was always making progress with Health Leads, he said. 

Gutierrez-Jimenez said he came to Brown wanting to fulfill the pre-med requirements, “had an existential crisis,” but ultimately returned to his desire to become a primary care doctor. Health Leads is “something that’s definitely impacted my career options,” he said. “It’s kept me very in tune with the real world.” 


Different places and problems

The challenges volunteers face in Providence include the city’s high unemployment rate, one of the worst in the country, its high risk of lead exposure and old and crowded housing, which is associated with asthma, Beachler said. 

 Typical resources patients might be connected with include Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Rhode Island Depa
rtment of Human Services, local food pantries and neighborhood childcare programs. But these resources aren’t always guaranteed.

“We can’t always expect success,” Levine said. She spoke of hours spent researching resources for clients, though ultimately a client did not have the qualifications or programs were full.

But “we always celebrate our victories,” Gutierrez-Jimenez said. “It’s very easy to be downtrodden because you can’t help everyone.”

Volunteer Emily Liu ’14 recalled a case where she worked with a mother and her newborn. The woman’s electricity had been shut off and her boiler had also exploded. Liu found that the woman was eligible for National Grid’s utilities subsidy program but then faced the problem of finding a boiler. As a college student, “it’s frustrating not to be able to commit all of your time to it,” Liu said.

The hardest cases are those in which the individual is not documented, Gutierrez-Jimenez said. “But if you can help them with one thing, that’s much more than what they had before,” he added. While the organization cannot directly provide for material needs, it is good at helping people allocate their budgets, Levine said. 

Another challenge volunteers face is reconciling their opinions about what is best for their clients with what the clients think. For example, families may oppose applying for food stamps even though volunteers may think food stamps are a good resource. “Obviously they know their lives a lot better than we do,” Levine said, “and so we have to trust their priorities and trust their intent.”

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