By Chanapa Tantibanchachai
For most college students, having to think about ‘adult’ things like health insurance for themselves is stressful enough. Now imagine helping someone else navigate not only health insurance, but also basics such as shelter, food and clothing. A group of University of Utah student volunteers for Connect2Health are doing just that by connecting underserved patients to local health resources.
Connect2Health is a nonprofit that utilizes student volunteers to refer patients to a variety of health-related community resources in hopes of improving the well-being of underserved patients. The organization’s mission is to “empower individuals to utilize community resources in order to cultivate multidimensional health.”
Students in an Honors Praxis Lab originally created the nonprofit. Each year, the U’s Honors College offers three Praxis Labs. These labs are yearlong, project-based courses that combine theory with action and exist to engage students with the community.
During the 2011-2012 academic year, students in the American Indian Health Care Praxis Lab saw a need for connecting urban American Indians to health care resources. After some brainstorming on how to best address the problem, Connect2Health was born with the vision of “a health care community that fosters self-sufficiency with dignity.”
From originally having only 12 volunteers at one clinic during its first year of operation in 2013, Connect2Health now has 40 volunteers and four occupational therapy students that serve three sites across the Salt Lake Valley: Fourth Street Clinic, Redwood Health Center and University Hospital. In total, the volunteers log roughly 715 patient interactions per semester.
Health mentors serve one three-hour shift in the clinic each week and attend an hour-long reflection session with other mentors every other week.
The most common needs patients have are housing assistance, food assistance, clothing, employment assistance, cellphones, transportation and medication co-pay assistance. A few examples of commonly referred to resources include the Salt Lake City Housing Authority, Danville Development for patients over 50, Meals on Wheels, Women Infants and Children, Crossroads Urban Thrift Store and Crossroads Urban Center.
With a thick binder full of local resources neatly tabbed by category in hand, referral possibilities seem endless and overwhelming. Two volunteers, Natasha and Hailey, both agreed that the most frustrating part of volunteering is the sense of helplessness that ensues when they can’t help patients. Oftentimes, patients come in with complex, multilayered problems that basic referrals can’t solve.
At the end of the day, though, volunteers agreed that simply guiding patients to resources they were previously unaware of is the most gratifying part of volunteering and makes their efforts feel worthwhile. Willem Schott, a recent U alumnus and leader of the Fourth Street Clinic in the spring 2015 semester, said volunteering for Connect2Health was an effective way to refocus his end academic and professional goals. “It’s a chance to step out of the classroom and try something; maybe you won’t give the perfect resource every time, maybe you won’t change the healthcare system this semester, but you’re out there trying and it does wonders for the development of empathy and responsibility as those patients count on you to show up and try your best,” said Schott.
Schott, who will begin his medical studies at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health this fall, called Connect2Health’s evolution amazing. From nothing but an ambitious idea in the classroom to a fast-growing, student-run nonprofit, the organization has made great strides in merely two years. The organization also recently received designation as an official AmeriCorps program, which provides with funding for 22 volunteers: two funded administrators and 20 funded health mentors.
“The most rewarding part has been seeing how the proof really has been in the pudding. People who deliver health care to the underserved of the Salt Lake Valley can no longer ignore the power of Connect2Health in addressing the health needs of those in need.”
If you want to learn more about Connect2Health, visit their website or contact director Alexis Pearl Lee at 801-647-5242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chanapa Tantibanchachai is an associate science writer at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email her at email@example.com.