Every week for the last five years, Bucks County residents Melissa Bennett, of Newtown, and Linda Sichel, of New Hope, have teamed up to teach parents who are experiencing homelessness about common children’s health issues, and how to find their families the healthcare they need.
Bennett is a pediatrician who works with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Homeless Health Initiative (HHI) and Sichel is a retired nurse who was looking for a way to give back to her community by leveraging her professional expertise. Together they teach a class on children’s health and wellness, which is attended by about 15-20 parents each week who are currently experiencing homelessness and staying at HomeFront’s Family Campus.
HomeFront’s Campus, which provides temporary shelter for 38 local families at a time, is located 15 minutes from Bucks County, across the street from the Trenton airport. While there, parents and children are provided with all the tools they need to become self-sufficient and gain the confidence they need to rebuild their lives. Families receive a place to stay, help finding affordable housing, the chance to finish their high school educations, job training and placement, case management, childcare and enrichment programs, life skills classes, health care and much more.
“The director of HomeFront’s Family Campus, Sheila Addison, reached out to CHOP HHI seven years ago,” explained Bennett, who started the health care classes, “because she noticed HomeFront families were using the ER for minor illnesses when they could be calling their pediatricians and getting more comprehensive, personalized care more efficiently. These parents loved their kids and wanted to do what is best for them, but just didn’t know how.”
After connecting with HomeFront, Bennett established a weekly health education program and medical presence there in 2013. She reached out to other local healthcare professionals of all specialties, asking them to offer their expertise during the weekly classes. At first, it was a big task to coordinate and deliver sessions every week. Additionally, families often had to bring their babies and toddlers to the discussion groups which could be very distracting. “Having Linda join as a partner two years later was a tremendous help to the program,” Bennett said.
“We could tag team session planning and care for children when needed, allowing parents to be more engaged in classes. Linda also offered additional time for new baby support which was greatly appreciated by new mothers and the staff.”
“When I first called HomeFront, I was trying to find volunteer work,” said Sichel, “that linked my professional skills and my interests. I looked at many organizations, but HomeFront had a clear mission and strong presence in our community. I cold-called and asked how I could help. I went and met Melissa and have been working with her for the last five years.”
Sichel’s nursing experience was the perfect fit for this program as she has a master’s degree in public health from NYU and spent eight years at New York Presbyterian Hospital in the pediatric and neonatal intensive care units. From there she worked at the Center for Disease Control and the New York City Department of Health working on issues affecting women, infants and children.
“Each week our guest speakers cover a specific children’s health issue, for example asthma, behavioral health challenges, how to get extra support for learning disabilities at school” said Bennett. “These speakers are generally colleagues from CHOP or health care professionals we know from our towns. When new speakers come, they love the families and find the experience really meaningful.”
During “health class” Bennett and Sichel, also connect HomeFront’s parents with local pediatricians and family practitioners who accept Medicaid in the community, so parents have a place to call and go for regular care even after they leave HomeFront’s Campus. The class also provides an opportunity for parents to ask Sichel and Bennett questions about their own children’s health issues.
“Recently, a mom staying at our Family Campus was having trouble attending our job training because her baby was having issues taking a bottle,” said Liza Peck, HomeFront’s Support Service liason. “Melissa and Linda gave the mom strategies which worked, so the child could go to our child care and mom could go to her WorkFirst classes.”
One HomeFront mom described the value of the class like this: “My mom passed several years ago and I don’t have sisters, so I never had anyone to ask what to do when one of my boys were sick. Linda and Melissa are never judgmental, so I feel comfortable asking for advice.”
“The class promotes preventative healthcare and early intervention” said Bennett. “It teaches parents to advocate for their children and themselves with medical professionals, and to have confidence to do so. Often there is a mistrust about health care systems, but we are teaching and demonstrating that doctors and nurses care about you.
“We are also sending the message to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Moving from homelessness to self-sufficiency is so difficult but these are moms just like us and we are here to motivate and empower them to continue moving forward.”
“I love when after attending a few sessions of our class, moms start opening up and sharing their own learning with each other,” Sichel said. “We see the rebuilding of a belief in themselves taking place and we know that will serve them well as they leave here and live independently in our community.”
To volunteer with the health education workshops, see chop.edu/hhi or to learn more about HomeFront and it’s volunteer opportunities, visithomefrontnj.org or call 609-989-9417.
Suki Wasserman is the community engagement coordinator for HomeFront.