Community outreach is an integral component of Penn Medicine’s three-part mission of research, patient care, and education. Many faculty, staff, and students not only provide free health care at community-based clinics but also serve as a wellness resource. Beyond those efforts, though, countless members of the Health System family reach out on an individual basis. They find time in their busy schedules — after working all week and meeting the needs of families — to give back to those less fortunate.
“Our employees who volunteer in the community are the best-hearted people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting,” said Laura Lombardo, manager of Penn Medicine Community Relations. “Many volunteer for the same event every month simply to promote good. Their generosity and selflessness continue to amaze and encourage me.”
Read below to see how seemingly small efforts can make a world of difference for those in need.
Quiet Surroundings to Meet Special Needs
Both Ginny McGill’s and her husband, Timothy, have deep roots in their West Philadelphia community. Her son, Aiden, even attends the same elementary school she went to. But McGill, who works in HUP’s Labor and Delivery unit, worried that Aiden, who has autism, was not getting all the help he needed to succeed at school.
A classroom can be intimidating for many children with autism, she explained. Triggers such as noises and lights in a classroom can cause the children to become over sensitized.. and a meltdown can follow.
“Throwing something or banging a head against the wall… anything to get their energy out,” she said. “For those who don’t know autism, it may look like the child is having a tantrum but they’re just trying to figure out the world.”
McGill didn’t want to leave the neighborhood she loved so she found a way to bring the support to his school – by creating Aiden’s “A”Team, a non-profit that seeks to educate and empower parents and caregivers of children with autism. Her first order of business: create a “sensory room” in Aiden’s school, for all of the school’s many other special education students, which include around 30 others with autism.
While sometimes a “squeezy hug” can bring an autistic child’s senses back to normal, McGill said an escape to a quieter environment is often a better solution. With low lighting, soft colors, and special activities, a sensory room provides a safe environment that allows special needs children to regroup and better cope with their surroundings.
Once the principal gaver her the go-ahead — and the space — for the sensory room, MCGill and others began to fundriase to help purchase items for the room, which included a special swing for sensory input. Made from a special stretchy material, “it allows Aiden’s body to relax,” she said. “I’ve seen him come back to focus after swinging.”
Thanks to a team effort, the sensory room opened in Aiden’s school last fall, the first in the Philadelphia School District. Now McGill has her sights set on finding other schools that would benefit from having one. “I’m hoping that data collected at Aiden’s school will prove to the school district that this is a necessary resource that should have a place at every school.”
Momma C’s: Putting Smiles on Faces
Ebenezer Baptist Church in Lancaster serves its surrounding community in many ways, providing clothing and household supplies, free groceries, counseling, and much more. But one of the longest-lasting efforts is “Momma C’s Kitchen,” which has been serving free meals to the homeless for, literally, generations. Noemi Martinez, a clinical service specialist in Family and Maternity at LGH, joined the effort seven years ago… and soon become a permanent member of the outreach team. “My mom raised us to help those less fortunate,” she said, adding that her siblings join her in this outreach as well.
Momma C’s Kitchen is up and running the first Wednesday of every month, feeding up to 100 homeless at Lancaster’s Transitional Living Center. Martinez and others not only cook the meal but serve it as well. And that includes 92-year-old “Momma C”!
In addition to the served meals, plenty of food is left for those who couldn’t make it. “We also give people food to take back to their friends,” Martinez said. The group also provides meals on alternate Thursdays to The Mix at Arbor Place, which helps local youth thrive on many levels.
Not surprisingly, those who come are extremely grateful. “They tell us the food is really good,” she said. “Or I just see smiles on their faces.”
There’s Something About Clean Clothes
Most of us take our clean clothes for granted, but for the homeless, they’re a luxury. In fact, “the biggest request outside of food for the homeless community is clean clothes,” said Ana Park of Cardiology at PPMC. “Living outside, exposed to the elements, leaves a person’s wardrobe worn, dirty and sometimes wet,” making them more prone to illness.
Two years ago, Park decided to make a difference. Working with her church (Bucks County Presbyterian), she started Loads of Love, a free, monthly laundry service for the homeless in the area.
To set up the program, Park first located a local laundromat willing to host a monthly “sponsored laundry” afternoon. All Clean Laundromat stepped up to the plate. She also connected with Advocates of the Homeless & Those in Need, an interfaith nonprofit that serves the homeless in Bucks County, to help her get the word out to the homeless about the monthly wash. When they initially started, “I had no idea there were so many homeless in the area. They live in the woods so it’s not as evident as in Philadelphia.”
Now, like clockwork, a van brings about 20 members of the homeless population to the laundromat the first Sunday of every month to do their laundry… and partake in a light lunch that Loads of Love provides. “For two hours, the doors are open to those who need it,” she said.
Because many are “repeaters,” Park has gotten to know them and listen to their stories. Most, she said, are actively trying to get out of this situation and will tell Park when they get a job. Even better, people who came out of homelessness will donate to Loads of Love. Park’s Penn Medicine CAREs grant will help her reach more people in the area and eventually to other communities. “Having clean clothes helps to foster dignity, value, and good health,” she said. “It’s something every person should have.”
A Safe Place to Connect
Once a week, for the past five years, Jim Schneider of Princeton Health has been helping first responders — police, fire fighters, EMTs and those in the military — find their way back to sobriety… and hope. As a former police lieutenant and military police officer, Schneider understands the burden of trying to cope with the violence, injury and sometimes death that often comes with these professions. And, as a recovering alcoholic, he understands how some try to dull the pain by turning to alcohol.
Called Bottles & Badges, this 12-Step meeting is specifically targeted to help first responders who suffer from alcohol addiction. “It creates a safe place to battle their disease,” Schneider said. For some who have lost their jobs, their families, their lives, “it’s the last straw… their only hope.”
The hour-long meetings are a “venue to vent and share and get hope and sobriety in a safe, trusted environment. It gives a person the chance to be with like-minded people who have similar training and experiences who can relate,” he said. “They tell people ‘I can handle this’ but they can’t. We cry together.”
Schneider knows that it’s not easy for members of these professions to take that first step toward recovery. Admitting to having an addiction can be seen as a sign of weakness, a stigma. And attending a “general” recovery program (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), “someone might be concerned about running into someone who knows him. There’s a fear of being exposed.”
To keep the anonymity, many attendees find this 12-Step Bottles & Badges meeting through word of mouth. Others were inpatients in Princeton’s First Responder Treatment Services program, where Schneider works as a Peer Recovery Support specialist. In the last three years alone, well over 1,000 first responders have attended these life-saving meetings. “This is a silent acknowledgement — a validation — that it’s working,” he said.
A Place for Kids to Learn and Have Fun
Easter Holmes, a clinical technician in the OR at Pennsylvania Hospital, loves spending time with kids of all ages … and the feeling is mutual. Her 24 nieces and nephews flock to her (“I think it’s because of my name!”) and she has a close relationship with her 11-year-daughter, Angel. But her love of kids extends beyond her family and into a project at her church, Truly Love Christ Ministries, that helps kids learn, explore, and just have fun.
On Sunday mornings, Holmes offers kids of many ages fun activities to keep them happily occupied while parents attend services. A couple years ago, she decided to take that initiative a step further – to a Saturday program during the summer. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each week, Holmes offered a wide variety of activities for the kids to enjoy, such as bible-related stories and worksheets (“Noah’s Ark is a favorite!”), arts and crafts, and games. The group went outside as well, “to explore God and nature,” in a park, or they’d go to a museum or even the movies. And she made sure they had a nutritious lunch, either preparing it herself or having it brought in. The kids loved it, she said. “Half the time they don’t want to leave at 2!”
This past summer, Holmes got married and moved and was unable to do the Saturday activities but she is already planning to bring back summer Saturdays in 2019. “Kids have told her how much they missed it so I want to get it started.” Her Penn Medicine CAREs grant will help her get the ball rolling.
“I love reaching out to children and giving them an outlet away from the cares of the world,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it!”