IAP Health Reflection: Deborah

Hi! I’m Deborah, currently a junior at MIT, and this past IAP I was a part of a pilot program between the PKG center and The Family Van, a program run through Harvard Medical School that offers free healthcare screenings in four underserved locations in the Boston area. 

Comprised of a small but powerful team of staff and volunteers, the Family Van seeks to reduce healthcare disparities in the Boston area by educating and empowering individuals to take charge over their own health, and encouraging clients to engage in preventative lifestyles, truly embodying the phrase, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Additionally, the van component of the Family Van’s mission is to meet people where they are – to go to the people, instead of having the people come to you (i.e. a health clinic or a hospital, or even taking a bag with a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer and going to local barber shops or cafes), and to work together to lessen the healthcare gap.

What did I do?

Part of what I did was work on the van. The van goes out Tuesday-Friday to four different locations around Boston – Nubian Square (formerly Dudley Square), East Boston, Codman Square, and Upham’s Corner. I was on the van on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, so I spent my time in and around East Boston and Codman Square. While on the van, we would perform free blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and eyesight screenings, as well as go through a pilot mental health questionnaire and talk to clients about their dental health, since January was the Family Van’s oral health awareness month. We also had gifts to give away – toothbrushes and toothpaste, baby food and baby formula, condoms and lube, and even some donated coats since it was winter. Being on the van was always the most fun part – we got to practice taking blood pressure on each other (when clients weren’t around), and also got to talk to Rai and Gigi about their own experiences with the Van. 

However, the best part of being on the van, by far, was talking with the clients. Each and every person that comes onto the van has their own story, their own background, their own reasons for showing up on the Van on that day at that time, whether it’s the first time or they’re there regularly. And with each client, as we take their blood pressure or blood sugar readings, we get to talk to them about their days, what they do, how they’re doing. Sometimes there’s quiet people who just want to monitor their readings on their lunch break and then go back to work. Other times it’s someone super talkative and outgoing, someone who will walk on, give everyone hugs, and tell you their whole life stories. And other times it’s someone who’s quiet, just stumbled onto the van because it said “Free Blood Pressure Screenings”, someone who knows their health isn’t the greatest, was just trying to get warm and off the streets for a minute or two, someone who is angry, frustrated, and hurting. And it’s working with these people that’s amazingly rewarding: getting to engage in conversation with people whose lives are so different from your own yet live only a short subway ride away, the opportunity to offer them a warm hug, and privilege of seeing them smile at the end. 

Working on the van was definitely the highlight of this month, and as I mentioned earlier, the Family Van specializes in healthcare screenings and preventative practices. Preventative practices include eating healthy, working out, seeing your dentist and primary care provider on a regular basis, and having a stable job, income and home (the latter three being particularly tied to mental health and wellbeing). However, sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly where you can go to get help when you need it. Thus, over the month, the other five volunteers (through the PKG pilot program) and I worked on creating a resource map and brochure for the four locations the Van goes. In it, we had a map, and on the map different “tags” of places where clients could go for different food, health & wellness, housing, or other needs – and on the back, there was office information and contact information as well! We worked on this brochure over the course of the month, and in the last week were able to finish it off and present it to the Family Van staff, and even were able to print copies to give out! We’re also passing on the materials we used to develop everything to the Family Van, since with nonprofit work, organizations come in and go out of existence, and the brochure and map will need to be updated. But seeing how the Family Van staff embraced and reacted to the brochures, saying that “this was exactly what they’ve been needing” and being so grateful for our presence and work both on and off the van this month has made it completely worth it.

Check out our brochures here! Nubian SquareEast BostonCodman SquareUpham’s Corner

Another thing we did while on the van, especially on the slower days, or when the van was sick (i.e. generator died, it was too cold to even start the generator, etc.) was do outreach. We would go outside and walk around the neighborhood with flyers about the Family Van, posting them in community boards in neighborhood centers and grocery stores, and just talking to people letting them know about our services. It was super scary at first, especially just going up to people, but my partner in crime, Reed (pictured), really took initiative even though we’re both super introverted, and helped push me to push myself to go out and talk to people as well!

The Immediate Impact on the Community

As I mentioned earlier, the van seeks to improve access to healthcare and empower clients to take charge over their own health. As such, our clients often have limited access to healthcare. Whether that’s due to a financial/insurance, language, location, time, or any other barrier, sometimes we’re the only healthcare-related people that our clients see, and sometimes we’re the only people they even talk to. But there are also clients who are super on-top of their health and come on every week or every other week just to monitor their blood pressure or sugar. And the van has a purpose for serving both of these extremes, and everyone in the middle. It’s a lot of fun working on the van and interacting with so many people from different backgrounds at different places in their journeys and relationships with health, and I’m so grateful that I was able to have this experience.

Long-Term Impacts and Growth

As with so many volunteer activities, the community we’re working in and people we’re working with are not the only ones who benefit and grow from our work. Speaking for myself, I definitely grew in so many ways from this experience. Yes, I learned how to take blood pressure and use a glucometer and take a small blood sample for the cholesterol meter. But beyond that, I practiced listening and showing empathy, letting people who are hurting really know how much I was listening and how much I cared. I learned how to seamlessly ask questions and guide conversations to get information from people while they were telling me their life’s stories. I came out of my introverted shell, embracing the heart of all who work on the Family Van, and became able to love on and care for the people in the communities we’re working in. 

I am so, so grateful for this experience on the Van. Yes, it was only a month; yes, I wish it was longer; yes, it was sometimes exhausting. But being able to share part of my heart with people from communities in Boston I’d frankly never even heard of before, and being able to be a tiny part of their story too, made it all worth it. 

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