By Pooja Modi and Cecilia Bahamon
Health Education Outreach Program (HEOP) is a community outreach project that was initiated by our friend Antonia Pusso, an NIAID postbaccalaureate fellow, in January 2012. We currently visit eight homeless shelters in Montgomery County, Maryland to discuss health issues with the medically underserved men, women, and children who live there. Given how vulnerable the homeless population is both to acute and to chronic diseases, our goal is to provide the shelter residents with current, evidence-based information about topics such as obesity, communicable diseases, and dental health. We also share useful resources to empower the homeless and help them make informed decisions about their health care with their physicians.
As members who have been involved in HEOP since the beginning, both of us have seen the project evolve into something bigger and better. Today, we have over 30 teachers, mostly NIH postbaccalaureate IRTA fellows, volunteering in small groups at the shelters. All of us have contributed countless hours building and refining lesson plans that we use as guidelines for our discussions. As a result of our hard work, we have built relationships we are proud of within the homeless communities.
Initially, however, we had many questions about how the residents at the shelters would react to HEOP. Both of us were fortunate to volunteer together at Carroll House, a shelter in Silver Spring for homeless adult men. Before approaching the men on our first day, we wondered if they would welcome a group of strangers who were approximately half their age. Would they want to open up to us and talk about their issues? Regardless of our concerns, we went in to the first class armed with a structured lesson plan on chronic pulmonary lung disease and smoking.
Although our first meeting with the men at Carroll House was successful and we were asked to come back for more lessons, we realized we needed to make the learning experience more interactive and engaging. After the first class, we let the residents’ curiosity guide them in choosing the health topics we discussed with them. We incorporated more activities and chances for the residents to share their own experiences.
For us, the most exciting parts of our lessons were when the residents opened up to each other about their health issues and debated about topics such as the benefits of prostate exams, low sodium diets, and mindfulness. We would like to think that these discussions are indicators that the shelter residents are more interested and invested in their wellbeing.
As we move forward with our mission in mind, we are eager for our third HEOP cycle to begin in October 2013. In addition to the health education we already provide, we are looking forward to initiating personalized, goal-setting meetings and cooking classes at the shelters. Although we went into the shelters with the notion that we were the teachers, we have learned far more from the shelter residents about health disparities. It has been a rewarding experience that will have a large hand at shaping our future service-oriented goals.
Because many of our members will leave for graduate school this summer, we are actively recruiting enthusiastic teachers who can contribute both time and new ideas. If you are interested in volunteering for the 2013-14 HEOP cycle or would like more information about HEOP, contact Pooja Modi at email@example.com or Max Hockenbury at firstname.lastname@example.org.