At the age of 19, Rebecca Onie founded Project HEALTH, a non-profit health agency that seeks to break the link between poverty and poor health. As a volunteer in a pediatric clinic at Boston Medical Center, Onie found that many patients returned to the clinic with recurring illnesses stemming from poor living conditions, inadequate diets, and other consequences of poverty. Onie conceived Project HEALTH to mobilize her peers to help break the cycle. Project HEALTH volunteers – college students who are competitively selected and rigorously trained – serve as patient advocates at hospitals and clinics where patients’ health problems are often traced to or exacerbated by inadequate access to food, housing and other basic needs.
Today, a corps of nearly 600 student volunteers helps low-income patients achieve better health outcomes by filling “prescriptions” for housing, food, heating oil, child care, legal advocacy and other social resources. As volunteers help patients overcome systemic barriers to health, Project HEALTH helps volunteers to develop advocacy and leadership skills. Many Project HEALTH volunteers go on to pursue careers in health and social policy.
Founded in 1996 while Onie was an undergraduate at Harvard, Project HEALTH now operates in six cities and serves more than 4,000 families with volunteers from 10 colleges and universities.
Rebecca Onie, 32, was recently named a recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship. She holds a B.A. from Harvard College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.