Treshawn Jones was desperate. Jobless for four months, she had burned through her meager savings, was running low on food for her two young children and barely scraping by on weekly unemployment checks of $307 that didn’t begin to cover her overdue $600 utility bill and monthly rent of $900.
So in March, while at Children’s National Medical Center with her 2-year-old son, Jones asked a sympathetic staff member if she knew of any resources that could help her family. Within minutes, Jones was meeting with Shalesha Lake, a junior at the University of Maryland at College Park who volunteers for Health Leads, an innovative program that has operated at Children’s since 2001. Three months later, with guidance from Lake, the 35-year-old single mother had completed a free job training course offered by Byte Back, a nonprofit group that provides computer training to underserved District residents, obtained free food and clothes for her children, applied for utility and rental assistance and, best of all, landed a $37,000-a-year job with benefits.
“Health Leads helped me tremendously,” Jones said. “I didn’t even know those things existed.”
The brainchild of Rebecca Onie, who co-founded the nonprofit organization in 1996 as a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard, Health Leads now operates in 23 urban clinics, emergency rooms and community health centers in Washington, Baltimore and four other cities. The goal of the program, which in 2009 earned Onie a MacArthur Fellowship and praise from first lady Michelle Obama, is both disarmingly simple and unquestionably ambitious: mobilizing highly motivated college students — most bound for careers in medicine and related fields — to help low-income families address their health problems by connecting them with basic services.
Although study after study has linked poverty to poor health — a 2006 report in the journal Pediatrics found that children whose families cannot pay their utility bills are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized — the medical and social service systems have long operated in largely separate and disconnected spheres. Too often, that results in a medical revolving door, as when doctors prescribe asthma medicines for children living in mold-infested apartments, only to have them wind up in the emergency room because their housing conditions were never addressed.
“Physicians don’t ask these questions because they don’t know what to do with the answers,” said Children’s social worker Alison Page. Most doctors, she added, have neither the time nor the expertise to deal with what health researchers call “the social determinants” of health.
Health Leads attempts to bridge that chasm. Patients fill out a questionnaire that prompts doctors to ask about their unmet needs; using that information, physicians and other staff members can “prescribe” food, housing assistance or child care, among other things. Patients then take their prescriptions to Health Leads, where student volunteers attempt to fill them, helping tap local resources many clients don’t know exist or have been unable to access.