Rebecca D. Onie '98 Wins Gleitsman Award

Health Leads CEO and Harvard alum Rebecca D. Onie ’98 was named 2012 recipient of the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award for helping low-income patients establish healthy lifestyles.

Onie, who received $125,000 as part of the award, joins a group of activists such as Wendy Kopp, Gloria Steinem, and Billy Shor who have been awarded the Gleitsman Award in honor of their leadership in social activism. The award—which Onie received on October 18—is given by the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School

Health Leads is a volunteer-based program that enables doctors and healthcare providers to “prescribe” basic resources like food and heat just as they would medication, explained Dana Jessup, rirector of communications for Health Leads.

Health Leads recruits college students through a selective application process and trains them to “fill” these prescriptions by working alongside patients in 6 major cities to connect them with the basic resources they need.

Health Leads got its start in Boston when Onie was only a sophomore. Inspired by an internship in the housing unit of Greater Boston Legal Services, Onie became, “fixated on this connection between health and poverty.”

John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, House Master of Adams House and one of the first doctors to focus on the connection between basic needs and health, remembered how his patients had insufficient food, housing, jobs, education, and language, challenges that made it difficult for him to provide appropriate health support.

“What Rebecca said, which was so unique, was, ‘look we have an army of undergrad students who are very smart and very committed and who want to get hands on experience with people...How can we merge what the patients need, doctors need, hospitals need, with what the students wanted to do and could be trained to do,’” said Palfrey.

Onie said she hopes to refocus the health care community on promoting general wellness, rather than simply treating illness through the “sick-care system.”

“We need [a health care system] that will keep us healthy, not just one that will manage our disease when we have gotten sick” Onie said. Health Leads is helping to address this particular area in medicine, she added.

According to Onie, receiving the Gleitsman Award was a humbling experience.

“The award isn’t really for me per se, it’s for the thousands of college students around our campuses who have given a significant amount of time, and energy, and tenacity and passion to this organization,” said Onie. “The Gleitsman Award at its heart is about what it means when people get together and work on a cause they care about deeply. Having an award that recognizes that is really profound.”