How do you make an impact on the health of a community? For a large organization like Penn Medicine, part of the answer lies in a wide array of community partnerships and outreach programs. Another part, though, is supporting the spirit of community outreach that motivates many of our staff, faculty, and students to give back even in their free time. That’s the idea of the Penn Medicine CAREs grant program, which has awarded over 550 grants since its inception in 2012 to allow employees to purchase supplies or other resources for their outside volunteer efforts.
“The program is really genius because it engages the employees,” says Laura Lombardo, manager of Community Relations for Penn Medicine, who oversees the CAREs grant program. “The passion for service among people who work here are incredibly inspiring. You see someone who, nine to five during the day, works as a secretary for a unit in one of our hospitals, and then on the weekends they're feeding the homeless and they’re out with their kids really giving back to the community. People like that are just golden.”
Staff, faculty, and students and trainees from across Penn Medicine are eligible to apply for a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to support their work in the community at any time—applications are always open, and are evaluated and awarded on a quarterly basis.
The type of work that Penn Medicine CAREs grants fund in the community may be directly related to clinical health care—such as covering the costs of a new laptop computer to maintain electronic health records for a free clinic for uninsured and low-income adults. But the program funds efforts that support a broader array of community needs, too. “We fund projects to meet community health needs,” Lombardo said. “But ‘health’ is broadly defined to include the social determinants of health, as well.” Many factors play into whether a person, family, or community is healthy—the stresses that prevent them from putting healthy food on the table, access to educational opportunity, safety of older homes in need of repairs, or even something like financial barriers to buying new professional clothes to get a job. There are countless more examples from across Penn Medicine, spanning the entire region.
Some Penn Medicine staff partner with existing nonprofits, such as Stephanie Yellin, a Clinical Care Associates employee who volunteers with Ballroom Dancing for a Better U. This nonprofit organization encourages ballroom dancing to foster positive changes in people’s lives; Yellin’s grant helps fund dance sessions for a group of 15-20 special-needs teens and adults—which makes a difference: “I used to not always be so talkative or interactive, but doing the dance class has helped me interact more with other kids,” said William McAnurn, one of the participants. Likewise, Maureen Stemwede, who works in Penn Medicine Princeton Health’s Department of Medicine Academic Program, used a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to support Senior Care Services, a nonprofit organization that connects older and often home-bound adults in the Princeton area with volunteers who can provide a friendly social visit or transportation for errands including health care appointments and grocery shopping, free of charge.
And sometimes Penn Medicine staff and trainees use a CAREs grant when they are moved to just get out and do something to help as an individual. Ayishah Berry, a HUP employee, initially wanted her own daughter to be able to safely play outside in their North Philadelphia neighborhood, where the crime rate is high. Berry saw other children out playing unsupervised and encouraged them to go together to the local Olney Recreation Center. This year, Berry received a CAREs grant for her play group, Play Date Philadelphia, to fund the purchase of jump ropes, basketballs, pogo sticks, and bottled water to share with the children—and Berry herself organizes and teaches games for outside play, such as Freeze Tag. She is working on making these once-informal pickup play sessions into a real nonprofit organization.
Helping the Helpers to Do More
The selection process for CAREs grants now involves a review by representatives from across Penn Medicine. The selection committee looks at not just what community needs a grant will support, but also at how the program’s outcomes from the use of the grant will be evaluated and how outcomes will be reported. Lombardo says that the greater attention to evaluation has helped the CAREs program to progress and fund “more sophisticated” projects.
But she does not want that to become a barrier to entry: “Any employee who has an idea, if they ask for help, I meet with them and go over what they can insert into their project for evaluation or to see if there’s any way to make that project better so the selection committee can see it in the best possible light,” Lombardo said. “We’ve forged friendships, too, so if there’s someone who's having problems in one aspect of their project, I can link them to someone else who's doing something similar.”
In December, CAREs grants recipients from the past year gathered for a celebratory reception, offering grant recipients another chance to mingle and learn from one another.
The year-end reception was also a special opportunity for a first-time CAREs award: the inaugural Penn Medicine CAREs Community Champion Award provided an additional $5,000 to a CAREs-funded program whose growth and outcomes exceeded expectations. The Community Champion Award selection criteria also considered the Penn Medicine staffer’s involvement, and their role in increasing more participation from others at Penn Medicine. The inaugural winner was Janet McMaster, RN, from the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center trauma center. For seven years, McMaster has volunteered with West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), helping to restore libraries to Philadelphia public schools by providing programming, books, and volunteers to steer children to read. With one of her recent CAREs grants, McMaster purchased books to help children with healing and emotional trauma. She also engaged more nurses from PPMC to host reading cafes throughout year for elementary school kids.
In celebrating the grant recipients at the year-end Penn Medicine CAREs reception, Patrick Norton, Penn Medicine’s vice president for Public Affairs, noted that the program’s growth has been extraordinary. When it started in 2012, there were 43 applications, and 24 Penn Medicine CAREs grants were awarded. In 2019, 316 applications were submitted and 136 grants were awarded.
Lombardo hopes to see the program grow even more as the years go on. With more resources, she says, the impact of the program can grow with even more people’s efforts, large and small.
“I really think that anyone can get out and do something, and the CAREs grant makes that possible,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your degree or your credentials. If you see a need and you think you can help, you can help, and excel at it.”