My Summer at Health Leads
Lara Mitra

In the summer of 2011, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Health Leads (formerly called Project Health), an organization established by Rebecca Onie after being inspired by Barry Zuckermen’s holistic view of what it means to be “healthy.” My particular Health Leads clinic was the Good Hope Road clinic in Washington DC, which connects low-income families to organizational resources that can enable them to lead a healthy life. While some families are, indeed, looking for medical treatments and care for specific diseases, others are in search of opportunities to learn basic skills and literacy. Yet others are looking for jobs in these hard economic times. Many of them struggle everyday to put nutritious food on the table for their families or to find a safe place to sleep at night. Most are on Medicaid. My task was to listen to their stories, identify which resources they need, and match them with organizations or programs in their neighborhoods that could provide those resources. I was not to do all the work for them, but rather empower them with information about options so they would be able to help themselves.

The first time I thought I had successfully helped one of my clients, I could barely contain my excitement. Anna Barber (name changed), who had recently gained custody of her three grandchildren, was looking for independent housing. “I would love to live in a three bedroom apartment with these children rather than in my friend’s house where we are all cramped and feel like outsiders,” she told me. The only problem was that all the three-bedroom apartments on the market were priced well out of her reach. With the help of Health Leads’ database of resources, I was able to find the telephone numbers of apartment complexes that offered subsidized housing for low-income tenants. One by one, I called each of the apartment buildings. One by one, I was turned down either because they were full or had long waiting lists. Just as I was losing hope, I found one that was possibly available. If Anna paid a visit to the apartment building early the next day, the owner would hold a one two-bedroom apartment for her. Anna had a good chance of finally getting her own place. Extremely thrilled, I called Anna right away. Remembering that my job was to help her help herself, I did not offer to go on her behalf but rather tried to impress upon her the importance of showing up at the apartment the next morning. We were both laughing and screaming with joy on the telephone discussing the apartment’s great location and how happy her grandchildren would be to finally move into a home of their own. Anna thanked me profusely for helping her find the apartment she had been craving so long. Then she hung-up.

A day later, still overflowing with excitement, I called Anna to see how her visit went. I tried a few times before I was finally able to get her on the phone. She explained to me that something important had come up and that she could not make it to the apartment building for her appointment. My heart sank. What could have been so important as to make her miss this critical appointment? Did she not care enough about her future and that of her grandchildren? Did she really not want independent housing?

Perhaps, helping others is about not intervening until they want something really badly. Maybe it is about selling an idea in an effective and persuasive way, so as to convince them that it will work. Or is it about allowing them to seek out on their own what it is that they want without intervening at all? What do you think?