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A Mighty SOURCE for the Community

By Mary Beth Regan

A few blocks east of Patterson Park, in East Baltimore's Highlandtown, some of the world's most vulnerable people are introduced to American life. Signs advertise "Income Tax Returns for $59.99" and entice recent immigrants with the promise of cash at local pawnshops.

Here, on Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street, at a nonprofit umbrella organization, Bloomberg School MPH candidate Tara Ramanathan has been working to help refugees at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) with one of the most vexing issues facing them: health care coverage. Medical expenses are covered for eight months by the federal government, she says. After that, newcomers are left on their own to sort through the labyrinth of federal and state health programs to see whether they qualify for coverage.

"This is a very vulnerable population," says Ramanathan, who will complete her MPH in May. "Many people don't speak English. They don't know if they qualify for coverage. It can be very complicated."

But Ramanathan says the work is fulfilling. It affords her valuable, real-world experience while pursuing her academic degree. Her assignment at the IRC came as part of the MPH Community Practicum. Through the course, newly launched this academic year, 11 MPH candidates are working across the city in organizations as diverse as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, the House of Ruth and the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. The MPH students spend up to 12 hours a week at organizations for 16 weeks during second and third terms. They also meet weekly to discuss their experiences in an hour-long seminar class.

Connected with the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore through SOURCE, Tara Ramanathan intends to survey area refugee families about their eligibility for health insurance coverage.

The students received their community placements through the University's Student Outreach Resource Center (SOURCE). Established in 2005, SOURCE last year connected 250 Hopkins students with dozens of community organizations and local health departments across the area (see sidebar).

"We're seen as a recognizable center from the community's standpoint to connect to Hopkins, and students recognize us as a way to connect with these organizations," says SOURCE director Mindi B. Levin.

Levin and Henry Taylor, senior associate in the Interdepartmental Program in Applied Public Health, were approached by the Bloomberg School to develop the practicum in order to provide MPH students with the opportunity to conduct population-based research projects. The experience is especially valuable, given that all MPH students must complete a capstone project—a lengthy, independent study applied to a real-life public health problem—in order to complete their degrees.

Says Levin, "We're growing, and we're growing at a very rapid rate." Above her desk hangs an artist's rendering of a famous Margaret Mead quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Those words sum up the passion of people like Ramanathan, who served in the Peace Corps in Senegal before coming to the Bloomberg School. A short visit with Ramanathan at the Baltimore Resettlement Center underscores the problems facing new arrivals. One man, sitting quietly watching television, tentatively answers questions about health care, but he is too frightened to give his name. A writer from Afghanistan, he made his way to the United States through Moscow. While he is fluent in Urdu, Farsi and Russian, he knows he will remain unemployed until he can master English.

Nearby, a 26-year-old refugee from Somalia named Mustaf Ahmed says he barely remembers fleeing his homeland for Uganda at age 11. "It was a civil war. It was terrible," he says. Today, he earns $6.25 an hour pushing wheelchairs. "I had medical insurance for eight months," he says. "But now it's over." When he needs to see a doctor, Ahmed visits a clinic and pays according to a sliding scale.

Ramanathan intends to conduct a survey of refugee families in the Baltimore area; she believes that some, like Ahmed's, may be eligible for health care insurance but do not have it. In addition, she will provide the Baltimore Resettlement Center and IRC with a report outlining federal and health requirements for various kinds of health care coverage.

Says her advisor, Aisling McGuckin, "It will be a tremendous resource."