By Deva Woodly
Photos by Jason Smith

Good health consists of more than being free of disease symptoms.

Especially for patients with scarce resources, the barriers to health often include seemingly simple tasks such as getting a ride to the hospital, keeping a good apartment, or managing debts. “Health is not just about physical manifestations,” said Vanessa Askot, executive director of Project HEALTH Chicago, a social services organization that has partnered with the University of Chicago Medical Center.

“Achieving good health involves treating all of the factors that influence health outcomes,” Askot explained. “That includes addressing the pressures and limitations caused by poverty, such as inadequate housing, lack of childcare, unemployment and transportation difficulties.”

As a non-profit organization, Project HEALTH mobilizes college student volunteers to help address families’ practical needs. The organization uses a family help desk model, which stations volunteers at or near the front desk in hospitals and health centers that serve low-income families. Using this structure, “every patient who walks through the door has the opportunity to speak with someone who is thinking about the importance of their psychosocial needs,” said Askot.

Askot, a graduate of the School of Social Service Administration and Chicago Booth, said the student volunteers have the time to address non-medical issues that might otherwise go unresolved. Each volunteer receives 14 hours of training in how to serve the needs of low-income patients.

Resourceful Case Management

“Professional social workers in the clinic, given the many demands on their time, are often not able to provide the kind of intensive case management that Project HEALTH volunteers can offer,” Askot said.

The volunteers at the family help desk in the front hall of the Friend Family Health Center at 55th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue—one of three sites staffed by Project Health Chicago—said they help patients by listening to their concerns and pointing them to resources and organizations that begin to solve their problems.

“The main idea is to empower our clients and to give them the information they need to live healthier lives,” said Dorea Martin, a third-year in Chemistry who has been volunteering at the help desk for a year and a half. “If they need housing, we might show them how to use Craigslist; if they need security deposit assistance, we give them the contact information of organizations that offer it; if they have transportation challenges, we help them find solutions.”

Megha Shankar, a second-year with a double concentration in Anthropology and Biology, who has been volunteering for Project HEALTH since last October, agreed. “Our model is sustainable because it gives people the information that they need to dig themselves out of the hole that poverty creates on many fronts,” Shankar said.

Persistence and Poverty

Poverty can lead directly to health complications for many patients, Askot said.

“We see many patients walk through the door and tell us that their landlord keeps the heat at 62 degrees, or that they have vermin in their apartments, so of course they show up at the hospital with respiratory problems and other illnesses,” Askot said. “The question then becomes, how do we change the situation to promote good health?”

Project HEALTH’s 50 student volunteers are committed to meet that challenge. They work at the help desk for two hours every week, and they spend another two to three hours with their clients throughout the week. Patients’ cases are not closed until their difficulties have been resolved.

It is a high and exacting standard that volunteers admit can be frustrating at times.

“It can be tough to keep up with patients,” Martin said. “Sometimes you call and the number is disconnected. Other times you call every week, and the client keeps telling you that he or she hasn’t gotten around to following up on any of the resources yet.”

But the clients who take full advantage of the family help desk are another story. “I love it when you get a case and you realize, ‘This person is really fighting.’ And I say, ‘OK, great, that means I’m going to fight even harder for you.’”

The difference that the volunteers of Project HEALTH make in the lives and health of patients has not gone unnoticed. Recently, Michele Obama, First Lady and former Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the Medical Center, praised the program as “the kind of social innovation and entrepreneurship we should be encouraging all across this country.” In addition, Project HEALTH’s national organization was just awarded a $2 million dollar grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Askot is happy for the recognition, but she said Project HEALTH’s most important accomplishments come from the work they do every day for patients and the skills, experience and knowledge that students gain in their volunteer work.

“The volunteers report having transformative experiences over the course of the year,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that they come away with all the answers, but they build awareness and empathy that will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

By Deva Woodly

Originally published on July 27, 2009.