Rebecca D. Onie '97 never did community service during high school.
But at Harvard, she helped turn her brainchild, Project HEALTH, from a pet project into a campus public service organization mainstay.
Finally, after three years of guiding the program after graduation and deferring future plans, she is leaving.
The legacy she says she hoped she has left is that undergraduates can do serious work with significant community impact without an advanced degree from medical or law school.
"We sometimes think that the real work begins when we get our J.D. or M.D, but with guidance from people in the field and our willingness to grapple with important issues, we can do real, important work now," she says.
And while the Straus Hall proctor will not go far next year---she will pursue her J.D. at Harvard Law School (HLS)--she has left a solid foundation of leadership for the program.
Health Beyond the Ivory Tower
Onie founded Project HEALTH--Helping Advocate and Learn Through Health--in 1996. It is a cluster of volunteer programs designed to combat the link between low income and poor pediatric health through community-based and clinic-based programs at the Boston Medical Center.
Its programs include a swim program for children with asthma, fitness and nutrition programs, a family help desk and an adolescent resource center among its 14 programs.
"Especially at Harvard, it's easy to become completely isolated in academic experience," Onie says. "But for a lot of students in Project HEALTH, it's been a window to the realities of life during this sheltered period and has let them see firsthand how they can affect meaningful change without that degree."
"The reality is that college students right now can do direct work in the community that directly brings outcomes. You don't need an M.D.; you just need to be really creative, committed and visionary," she continues.
Vision is one of Onie's most unique qualities, says Adolescent Resource Center Coordinator Allison A. Young '00.
"When she speaks to you, for whatever reason--and she always has time to speak with you--she speaks a mile a minute because that's really how her brain works," Young says.
"She doesn't accept the obstacles that could continually present themselves to her. And she has incredible insight into how to form an organization," Young concludes.
Onie, who hails from Brookline, Mass., was inspired to become an Advanced Standing History of Science concentrator after taking a bio-ethics course the summer before her senior year of high school. The course sparked her interest in the connection between health and poverty, but before coming to Harvard, Onie did no community service, which she says is "odd."
But since taking over Project HEALTH, she has developed a near zealot intensity for her work.
"Whenever I've heard her talk about anything, she's so passionate about it. You leave feeling like you could do anything with your program," says Abigail A. Donaldson '00, coordinator of the adolescent resource center.
The New Guard
Next year, Lauren R. Garsten '00 will take over Onie's position as national director, overseeing the programs in Boston (at Harvard and MIT), Providence (at Brown University) and New York (at Columbia University).
Kathleen Conroy '98, who served as national director of outreach and was one of the original 10 volunteers, is also departing the program. Afia Asamoah '99 will take over as the Boston and Providence regional coordinator.
Both Garsten and Asamoah have been associated with Project HEALTH since its first full year of existence, but say it will still be a sizable transition.
"I think it will be a big change. I think it's a testament to what a strong
organization she's created that it's ready for a transition," Garsten says. "...There are people who came through the organization who she's cultivated to be that interested and ready to take over."
Garsten also said she wants to focus on cultivating the program's current sites as opposed to continuing expansion.
"We've expanded to a new site every year so we want to take a year to perfect the programs going on here and [increase] communication between the different sites in Boston, New York and Providence," she said.
Young, who will also work for the organization next year, attributes staffers' loyalty to Onie's enthusiasm.
"She really pushes people to really reflect on these issues, and I think that's why many people want to stay involved in Project HEALTH after they graduate," Young says.
Onie was no different. She planned to defer her HLS acceptance for a year after graduation, but continued deferring because of the program's rapid growth. Now, with the national expansions in place and solid leadership, Onie will step back.
"I don't think there's ever going to be a good moment to leave your organization," she says.
She will remain close, leaving her proctorship to become a pre-law tutor in Adams House and helping to develop a national board for Project HEALTH during the summer.
And she says she will use her law degree to continue the work she established with the program, either through direct advocacy, policy work or non-profit work.
"I really believe that this is the most important work to be done," she concluded.
There will be a reception for
Onie tonight between 7 and 9 p.m. on the first floor conference room of the Institute of Politics.