By Briana Smith
About two dozen students spend at least three hours a week stationed in the pediatrics wing of the Nassau University Medical Center (NUMC), waiting to aid a family seeking health needs. These students participate in the Advocates internships for the Community Health program and for Health Leads, in a partnered program that concentrates on linking families to reliable community resources that provide immediate relief and on teaching families, students and professionals how to advocate for themselves and their clients.
“A responsible member of any community wants to give back,” said John Crosby, the internship program coordinator and a senior philosophy major.
They have already helped over 150 families in the area.
The Advocates for Community Health are interns with Hofstra University’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), a university-based institute created to educate students in democratic values by engaging students in collaborative partnerships with the campus, local, national and global communities. Also partnered with Hofstra are the Nassau University Medical Center; Project Delivery of Chronic Care (DOCC), a non-profit organization that focuses on the needs of families whose children require special health care; and Health Leads, a national organization that trains college students to refer medical center clients to other community resources.
“Our students link the parents with the resources they need to the best of their ability,” said Cheryl Mwaria, program director of the Advocates internship and chair of the University’s Department of Anthropology. “They may not connect a person immediately, and may have to call around or send a patient somewhere else.”
Mwaria emphasized that the Advocates insist that client should not leave until they are assisted. Although Health Leads has provided their clients with resources in numerous medical centers, they were never specifically fixated on families of children with special needs.
“I felt that there were many Long Island families with children with special health care needs who were further challenged by their basic needs for food security, affordable housing, job training and the ability to learn English as a second language,” said Maggie Hoffman, the co-founder and director of Project DOCC.
After an intake is complete, the clients receive follow-up phone calls from the student advocates, and they are then provided with contact information for resources such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The Advocates attempt to informe and encourage their clients until the right connections are made.
“The families feel heard by their doctors and the student Advocates,” said Hoffman. “As many of the families visiting the desk are immigrants to the United States and to Long Island, it’s important to become rooted to their own communities and to feel supported by them.”
Every Thursday evening, the students meet to have a reflection session and discuss their experiences with their clients and how to improve their interactions. On some evenings, members of Project DOCC come to teach a narrative medicine class, the process by which people learn how to tell their stories in order to receive the help that they need, and from Project DOCC the students learn how to identify and understand each family’s issues.
They encounter many families who are hesitant about sharing personal information. During their last reflection session on April 10, Crosby gave many useful tips on how to communicate with clients respectfully and effectively and make them feel comfortable.
“It seems like a lot of people think if they apply for benefits, they are capitalizing on other peoples’ work,” said Crosby.
Many families struggle because they do not have an adequate supply of food, nor do they know about the benefits they can obtain.
“Good health is more than the absence of disease,” said Mwaria. “You want people in your community to be well-fed, and on Long Island there is a lot of hunger, so linking those families with food whether it’s federally mandated or local is one huge thing.”
“I think people don’t know what they are entitled to, so there is a negative connotation with food stamps,” said Jessica Magarinos, the internship program coordinator and a junior biology and applied physics major. “I think the way we approach things needs to change. There should be a negative connotation on families who are hungry [for their being hungry], not families who are looking for help.”
Mwaria spent two years developing the ideas of the Advocates for the Community Health and Community Leads project, which began in Jan. 2013, with Hoffman and Marsha Hurst. Hurst is a Project DOCC board member and co-chair of the University Seminar on Narrative, Health, and Social Justice at Columbia University.
Hofstra’s Advocates for Community Health became the first and only suburban help desk for Health Leads in the nation, and this is just the beginning of developing a stable, well-equipped community for the future.
“Hofstra University’s student Advocates are Long Island’s pre-professionals; they will be our future policymakers, teachers, medical providers and lawyers,” said Hoffman. “Their votes will be better informed about how reallocation of resources may make all Long Islanders healthier.”