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A Healthy Project HEALTH

By Neeraj K. Gupta, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Project HEALTH (Helping Empower, Advocate and Lead Through Health)--an undergraduate community service organization--has dramatically increased its membership in the past two years since its founding.

Nearly doubling its membership this fall, the organization has expanded to include 73 volunteers involved in 11 different service projects.

Project HEALTH Founder Rebecca D. Onie '97 started the association in the spring of 1996 with only 11 core members. Onie was unavailable for comment last night.

In collaboration with the Boston Medical Center Pediatric Department, the organization was founded to help understand and relieve the social, economic, political and legal forces acting on children's health status, members said.

According to Supinda Bunyanavich '98, a campus coordinator, the program operates under the belief "that it's not enough just to ask how we can help poor kids, but we've also got to wonder why they're poor."

This interdisciplinary approach to community service, combining both medicine and social advocacy, has attracted increasingly large numbers of volunteers interested in "looking at the larger issues surrounding the life of pediatric patients [and] looking at health as it relates to other social problems," said Kathleen N. Conroy '98, a program coordinator.

The group works not only with doctors, but also with lawyers and administrators, because, according to Conroy, it feels that it is necessary to be aware of the environmental conditions in order to really help the patients.

"You can't give good health care without looking at the outside conditions of the patients," she said. "We can see them at the hospital, but we can't help them without changing their situation."

This help includes such service projects as a Family Help Desk outside the waiting room at the Boston Medical Center, staffed with Harvard students who dispense advice on topics ranging from health insurance, food, housing, job training or child care.

Another Project HEALTH initiative, sponsored by General Motors, targets families with small children and distributes child safety seats to them, as well as training parents on their use.

A different project works with asthmatic children, helping them exercise in a local community center pool.

Still another program works with overweight children, and helps improve both their health and self image with exercise and nutritional classes.

Besides these service projects, Project HEALTH includes a mentoring program, matching the volunteer students themselves with doctors, lawyers and other members of the Boston Medical Center staff.

The mentors help supervise each student's particular project, as well as working with them in a personal aspect.

Eric W. Vogt '99, the other campus coordinator, called the mentors "inspiring people successfully integrating social service into their careers." These mentors serve as role models to the students themselves, helping them even as they volunteer for others.

The final principle of Project HEALTH is reflection, as each week the volunteers on the different projects get together as a group to discuss their experiences.

According to Vogt, this is also an opportunity to "take on problems not only on a personal level, but also on a systemic level, making plans to change the forces underlying the causes of the problems."

This blend of direct community action and broader social consciousness has had broad appeal to the Harvard community.

Growing from that original group of 11 students, the group has roughly doubled each semester since its inception. This year, the program also includes 10 students at MIT and is looking to expand into other schools in the Boston area.

Eighty students applied for membership this fall, but only 40 were chosen, largely from the sophomore and junior classes. Spots were limited by numbers of mentors and the need to keep the group small enough for effective reflection groups.

Selection criteria is based on level of commitment, as the program demands a high level of enthusiasm and responsibility. Last summer 35 students stayed to work on their projects.

"All of these programs are projects that wouldn't otherwise be going on if it wasn't for the students's initiative and creativity," Vogt said. "This isn't the kind of service that we can just walk away from, because otherwise it wouldn't happen."

Still, for those students who do invest the time in the program, many say it is a good one.

Mike C.K. Maii '98, a program coordinator, calls the experience "really rewarding, the best thing I've done at Harvard."

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