Rebecca Onie (2009)

Read the New Frontier Award® announcement


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.

Remarks by Caroline Kennedy

It is great to be here to present the 2009 New Frontier Awards. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Presidency, it is inspiring that my father’s call to service is still being answered by people like the two young Americans we honor today.

I was lucky to grow up in a family that believed that we are never too old, or too young, to serve others. We learned from the example of the adults around us, like my aunt Eunice and my uncle Teddy, that the happiest people are those who work to improve the lives of others, and that we each have the power and the responsibility to make the world a better place. The New Frontier Awards were founded to celebrate this simple profound idea.

Some people change the world in a classroom, a garden, or a family. Others like Patrick Murphy, serve in the military, enter politics and do it on a larger scale. And a very few people, like Rebecca Onie create a completely new paradigm and help the rest of us see things in a different way.

The remarkable thing is that leaders like Patrick Murphy and Rebecca Onie usually don’t think they are doing anything extraordinary. They just see something that needs to be done and they do it. If they are facing a choice between the usual way and a better more challenging way, they don’t even see it as a choice.

That is the kind of leadership that President Kennedy embodied, and that these Awards celebrate today.

As a joint endeavor of the Institute of Politics here at Harvard, and the John F. Kennedy Library, and presented here in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, where my brother worked to attract a new generation to care about public service, these awards are very special to our family.

For so many years, these two institutions were animated by my uncle Teddy’s steadfast leadership and his wholehearted commitment to the values of courage and hope, service and fairness, justice and the search for peace that animated my father's public career.

Teddy served in the United States Congress with Patrick Murphy, and he inspired Rebecca Onie, and he would be so proud that they are receiving this Award today.

Patrick Murphy is giving voice to a new generation of men and women who have served our country in 2 of the most difficult conflicts in our history. Rebecca Onie is giving thousands of families the tools they need to lead healthier lives and break the cycle of poverty and illness in places where resources are few.

They embody two vital values in our society – leadership and community – values that we need to build our own New Frontier.

Now I would like to present Patrick Murphy with the New Frontier Award for elective public service. This award is also called the Fenn Award, in honor of Dan Fenn, who worked in my father’s administration and was the first director of the Kennedy Presidential Library. Dan Fenn is with us today, and I’d like to ask him to stand for a moment and be recognized.

At the age of 36, Patrick Murphy has already given more hours of service to his country than most of us will give in a lifetime. His distinguished tour of duty in the U.S. Army took him to Bosnia and to Baghdad, where he saw first-hand the devastating impact of 21st century war. He returned home and entered politics, determined to prevent Iraq from becoming an abyss of promising lives lost. Now in Congress, he is a champion for the men and women he served with, spearheading important changes in military and veterans’ policy and transforming his own experience into meaningful, enduring support for American servicemen and women around the world. We are grateful for his courage and leadership. I am delighted to ask Patrick Murphy to come up and accept the 2009 New Frontier Award.

[Patrick Murphy is presented with the 2009 New Frontier Award]

Rebecca Onie is revolutionizing the way health care providers meet the needs of sick people who are also struggling with the challenges of poverty. By connecting low-income patients with the resources they need to stay healthy after they leave the doctor’s office, Rebecca is helping to break the viscious cycle of poverty and illness. By inspiring a generation of talented college students to pursue careers in public health, she is giving them the skills and the experience to become passionate and thoughtful innovators in the field of health care. As founder and CEO of Project HEALTH, Rebecca is a visionary who saw an unmet need and figured out how to meet it, and she inspired her peers to join her in the challenge. She inspires the rest of us too. I am pleased to present Rebecca Onie with the 2009 John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award.

[Rebecca Onie is presented with 2009 New Frontier Award]