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University News

Med students host health fair for Providence locals

Fair in Burnside Park provides housing, health, job services to underserved communities

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 7, 2016

Beside Kennedy Plaza lies a park with a half-sunken boat jutting out of the struggling grass. Burnside Park, otherwise known as People’s Park, is a local meeting place for Providence’s community of individuals experiencing homelessness, which totals about 4,000, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

Usually the park is filled with community members, some with their life possessions on their backs and others with just a briefcase. But this Saturday, it was a bit busier than usual as Alpert Medical School students held a health and resource fair to provide services for Providence’s vulnerable populations, such as homeless, underinsured, foster youth, low-income and unemployed individuals.

A walk through the park

Many groups congregated to offer their services Saturday afternoon. The Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office distributed brochures aimed at helping individuals work through legal issues; Clinica Esperanza, a local healthcare clinic, offered blood pressure and glucose screenings; Ocean State Immunization Collaborative provided flu and pneumonia shots; the Community Action Partnership of Providence provided economic and housing assistance; the Providence Community Health Centers scheduled follow-up care appointments and local vendors donated snacks.

Another booth was hosted by Fostering Hope, a foster youth advocacy organization started by Alice Cao MD’19 and Austin Tam MD’19 to provide services to foster youth. The duo offered pamphlets from Brown’s Health Services about health affairs that affect teens and young adults, as well as Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms, job advice and financial management information.

Often times, foster youth end up getting lost in the system and don’t know where to go for healthcare, school advice, resume building, job applications or even basic life skills, Cao said. This can lead to foster youth ending up on the streets after they age out of the foster program at 18, she added.

Medical students and volunteers walked around the park, helping individuals navigate the resources and fill out health history forms.

“It’s really hard when you’re at the doctor’s office to just rattle off your medical history and medications,” said Hiba Dhanani MD’19, a member of the Rhode Island Medical Navigator Partnership and one of the organizers of the event. “This way they can take the form with them to the doctor, having had the time to really flesh out what their medical concerns are beforehand.”

The planning of the event came naturally, Dhanani said. While the medical school has a history of organizing health fairs, they’re usually indoors. When brainstorming ways to be more accessible to the community in September, organizers chose Burnside Park due to the underserved populations who frequent it, she added.

The fair’s goal was to “serve the community first and foremost” by making “really basic services” accessible to people who may lack the transportation, time or trust necessary to seek health services, Dhanani said.

In her outreach experience with Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere and the Rhode Island Medical Navigator Partnership, Dhanani has learned that sometimes homeless or low-income individuals are deterred from seeking medical attention due to negative past experiences with discrimination.

“Hearing about people’s experiences and how they’ve been treated is really frustrating and disheartening — especially for someone who will be a future medical provider,” Dhanani said. She added that volunteers at the fair hope to counter those negative perceptions and “encourage people to seek out medical care in the future.”

Serendipitous service

In the middle of the park near the fountain was a table covered in pans and plates of hot food, courtesy of the homeless advocate organization Mama Dreads Mission of Love in conjunction with Occupy Providence and Tenderloin Opera company, a theater group that aims to raise awareness of homelessness in Rhode Island through storytelling, performance and music.

Mission of Love didn’t plan its service around the medical school’s health and resource fair, but it was an unexpected perk, Mama Dreads said.

“When we come out, things happen!” said Diamond Callies, a Providence citizen who volunteers with Mama Dreads.

Mama Dreads’ volunteers often serve food to homeless individuals at Burnside Park due to their own experiences with homelessness and inability to buy food, Callies said. The volunteers put together their food stamps to cook meals in the kitchens of Crossroads Rhode Island, a nonprofit that assists homeless and at-risk families.

“We’re the formerly homeless speaking up for the homeless who are too afraid,” Callies said. “Certain people don’t like us out here, but we’re not here to be liked. We’re here to make a change.”

At the back of the park, against the metal fence, stood Scott Grande and Michael Pavia of North Christian Church in Dighton, Mass. The pair had lined the fence with pants, sweatshirts and suit jackets — all free for the taking for those in need.

“The only requirement is that it fits!” Pavia said. Like Mama Dreads, the pair had not collaborated with the other booths at Burnside Park — they just came because they felt convicted by faith to help people, he said.

“Some people would say it’s a coincidence, but we don’t believe in coincidence,” he added. The pair ended up giving out five trash bags full of clothing.

The difference

The event’s accessibility led many individuals experiencing homelessness to take advantage of the services offered at the fair.

David Cho, who introduced himself as “The Korean,” lives downtown in Burnside Park. After saying, “I’ve got no place to live,” he walked over to Community Action Partnership of Providence’s booth to receive help with housing.

Cho was there Saturday with his friends, “BB Bad Guy,” a quiet man in a gray sweatshirt, and “The Candy Man,” who wore blue slacks pinned at the leg where a dog tore them.

While the friends said they had no idea that the health and resource fair, Mama Dreads or Pavia and Grande would be there, they stocked up on medical services, food, housing information and community resources.

“I was homeless for two years, and stuff like this matters,” said Taylor Parker, who received free blood tests and described the fair as “awesome sauce.”

As someone who used to be homeless, Callies stressed the need for compassionate community members, saying “when I was out here, I didn’t want to participate. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t care about anything.”

Now Callies spends her days giving back, feeding people with Mama Dreads Mission of Love.

Mama Dreads also started her organization because of the help she received during her experiences with homelessness on Thayer Street. Students walking by would sometimes give her money or food from dining halls, she said, adding that “the kids at Brown are very cool.”

“Even if you can’t give (people who are experiencing homelessness) money, give food. We need all the help we can get,” Mama Dreads said.

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