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Conference Links Service-Oriented Students and Health Professionals

By Noemi Giszpenc

"Change the world!" boomed Robert Lewis, Jr., Executive Director of City Year. He was the last, but not the least, of five morning panelists addressing 150 undergraduates from ten universities at a regional conference called "Service, Policy, Leadership: Meeting the Needs of a Child," sponsored by project HEALTH (Helping Empower, Advocate & Lead Through Health) and the Institute of Politics at Harvard (IOP).

The one-day conference took place Saturday, March 7 at the IOP. The purpose was to provide volunteers who work with inner-city children "the opportunity to consider children's health as a nexus of social, environmental, and economic factors," according to the brochure for the event.

Conference participants broke into four workshops focusing on nutrition, violence, literacy, and environmental concerns, following presentations and a short discussion period with the panelists. After a smaller, informal luncheon discussion, people attended an afternoon workshop on one of the four topics. Various project coordinators then set up displays at a service fair. The conference ended with a final keynote address to the assembled group by the Executive Director of Stand for Children Jonah Edelman.

Each of the panelists and workshop leaders had a different way of saying it, but each was there to inspire and teach college students to follow Lewis's clarion call to change the world.

Throughout the day, conference participants heard about a number of programs, such as Jumpstart, Project Bread, City Year, and Reach Out and Read, in addition to Project HEALTH's 18 student-run programs. Despite this proliferation, the need for well-defined goals was a common theme.

Robert Restuccia, executive director of Health Care for All, related how his organization fared much better once it stopped working for an immediate and total realization of its name and instead lobbied for small, concrete changes. Rick Weissbourd, Co-Founder of Read Boston, echoed that idea in the morning literacy workshop, referring to the City's commitment to increase the number of children reading by third grade.

Many speakers also emphasized the importance of finding a constituency of affected people, asking them what they want, and responding to their needs. Listening to people in poor communities is not only respectful, but it helps organizers define goals, and it provides organizations with a strong grass roots source of support. "Changing things isn't easy," concluded Edelman. But he added, quoting Frederick Douglass, "Without struggle there is no progress."

Project Exists to Help Volunteers

Project HEALTH seeks to aid undergraduates affiliated with Harvard University's Institute of Politics and MIT's Public Service Center in their work by putting them in contact with doctors, lawyers and other professionals from the Boston Medical Center Department of Pediatrics. The multi-disciplinary community program "unites the energy and vision of undergraduates, the experience and knowledge of BMC professionals, and the policy expertise of university faculty to challenge the poor health outcomes, substandard living conditions, political disempowerment, and environmental racism experienced by low-income children," said the brochure for the event.

Volunteers number 85

Project HEALTH started two years ago as a pilot program. Currently, 85 volunteers participate in projects ranging from asthma advocacy to computerized children's health insurance registration. The conference itself was a joint Harvard-MIT project coordinated by Sumedha Lamba '99 and Eric Vogt '99 of Harvard, and Shawdee Esghi '99 of MIT. Conference participants were from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Wellesley, Umass Boston, Boston College, Tufts, Brown, Dartmouth, and Smith.

MIT's Project HEALTH Campus Co-ordinators are Anita Krishnan '98 and Pooja Shukla '99. The Director of Project HEALTH is Rebecca Onie of Harvard University.