Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program
Since 1996, the Chicago area Schweitzer Fellows Program, like its national counterpart, has worked to improve the health and well-being of poor and underserved individuals living in and around the city of Chicago by developing public health professionals with a lifelong commitment to service. The Baxter International Foundation, which has a similar focus, has provided the Schweitzer program with nearly $850,000 in grant funding since that first year. Schweitzer Fellows – all graduate-level health professional students – participate in a 13-month program that includes their provision of a minimum of 200 hours of direct service through a community-based organization. Fellows also participate in several public symposia on health, as well as community service days, in which the entire group of Fellows works together to build morale, strengthen ties and build awareness of the Schweitzer Fellowship Program in the larger community. Fellows receive a stipend of $2,000.
The program is committed to carrying out Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s mission of “reverence for life,” says Ray Wang, director of the Chicago-area Schweitzer Fellows program, which is facilitated by the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group. “Since the program’s founding, more than 430 Schweitzer Fellows have designed and implemented innovative projects that have helped tens of thousands of underserved Chicago families and individuals improve their health and well-being,” Wang says. “The Fellows have contributed more than 86,000 hours of service and have enabled over 170 clinics, schools, social service agencies and churches to boost their capacity to serve Chicago’s must vulnerable communities.”
Project design emphasizes activities that are enduring, to ensure the project will continue to benefit the community after an individual’s Fellowship has ended. In 2011, for example, Schweitzer Fellow Tara Berkson, a graduate student in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, began a project to promote healthy lifestyle choices for patients with diabetes at CommunityHealth, a free clinic for uninsured Chicago residents.
Berkson instructs patients on insulin administration and proper nutrition. She also helps them develop wellness prescriptions. “Essentially, I sit down with patients and find out about their nutrition habits and food preferences, and we set goals for them to work on, such as eating more vegetables,” Berkson says. “Then we break the goal down even further into weekly objectives. I have them start by trying to integrate vegetables into every dinner, for example.”
Berkson also organizes weekly visits with patients to a local farmer’s market. The visit begins with a lesson on organic and sustainable fruits and vegetables and a discussion about what is in season, why that matters, and what dishes that can be prepared from them. Attendees also receive gift certificates to purchase items at the market.
The long-term vision for the Schweitzer program is to cultivate lifelong leaders in service. “A majority of Schweitzer alumni remain engaged with helping poorly resourced communities beyond their fellowship year,” Wang says. To support this, six years ago the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group launched its Fellows for Life Program, which provides ongoing networking, volunteer and skill-building events for past fellows. The Baxter International Foundation is a founding sponsor.
In a recent survey of Chicago Area Schweitzer alumni, 98% indicated that their Fellowship experience continued to be an important influence in their personal and professional lives and 90% said that their current careers reflect that goal. Dr. Robert McKersie, who was chosen to be one of the first Schweitzer Fellows when the program began in 1996, is one example of how Fellows for Life continue to develop as leaders and remain engaged with vulnerable populations.
McKersie spent his fellowship year directing a musical theater production with inmates at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago, helping these young people develop self-confidence and communications skills. Sixteen years later, he’s still working with the underserved, providing much-needed volunteer medical services to thousands of patients in several small Nepalese villages near the Tibetan border. He also serves as a mentor for current Chicago Fellows.
“The Schweitzer Fellowship showed me that a collective effort is always a powerful tool for change,” McKersie says. “I’m still in contact with several of my year’s Fellows, and I fondly remember the group forums that we all participated in. I’m also keenly aware that I would never have been able to participate in a project like this without the immense support of many people all working together for the common good.”