As part of a spring semester service-​​learning course, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity grad­uate stu­dents designed a community-​​based inter­ven­tion strategy for expanding a mobile health-​​care clinic called the Family Van into East Boston.

The Family Van — a non­profit pro­gram sup­ported by Har­vard Med­ical School —cur­rently offers free, curb­side health screening, mon­i­toring and moti­va­tional coaching to some 5,000 yearly vis­i­tors from Boston’s Rox­bury, Dorch­ester, Hyde Park and Mat­tapan neighborhoods.

In May, the van received funding from the Boston Sci­en­tific Foun­da­tion to expand its reach. The grad­uate stu­dents’ pro­posal will serve as the basis for devel­op­ment in East Boston.

The pro­posal included increasing the number of bilin­gual health-​​care works who serve clients; estab­lishing a young adult advi­sory board aimed at pro­moting the ben­e­fits of mobile health care to young Latinos; and forming part­ner­ships with com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions and stakeholders.

The goal is to over­come cul­tural and finan­cial bar­riers to health and health care. In East Boston, some 10 per­cent of res­i­dents are unin­sured and roughly 20 per­cent live in poverty. Many in the community’s robust Latino pop­u­la­tion are foreign-​​born and con­sider Eng­lish a second or third language.

Our goal was to increase pre­ven­ta­tive health-​​care ser­vices among East Boston res­i­dents and pro­mote health aware­ness and health-​​seeking behav­iors in young adults,” said Giselle Bonzi, a second-​​year stu­dent in the Master of Public Health pro­gram who helped develop the pro­posal in a course called “Race, Eth­nicity and Health.”

The expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity, she said, has con­tributed to her under­standing of the impor­tance of com­mu­nity engage­ment. “This project has pro­vided me with a model for how aca­d­emic researchers can actively engage and pos­i­tively affect their com­mu­nity through effec­tive part­ner­ships,” she said.

It was par­tic­u­larly pow­erful to take what we learned in the class­room and be part of some­thing that will hope­fully have a pos­i­tive impact on people’s lives.”

Improving overall health and well being is more com­pli­cated than simply man­dating health insur­ance cov­erage, noted Mary Sharon Kaminski, another second-​​year stu­dent in the program.

As she put it, “Even though Mass­a­chu­setts res­i­dents are cov­ered by state-​​run health insur­ance, there are many other bar­riers to care that are addressed by the Family Van.”

Hort­ensia Amaro, dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of health sci­ences and of coun­seling psy­chology in the Bouve Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, and director of the Insti­tute on Urban Health Research, taught the service-​​learning course. She praised its value.

Grant writing is an essen­tial skills that our MPH stu­dents will need in their future jobs as public health pro­fes­sionals,” she said.

Cate­rina Hill, the research and eval­u­a­tion pro­gram man­ager for The Family Van, who called the part­ner­ship a “win-​​win,” was par­tic­u­larly impressed by the stu­dents’ professionalism.

They treated this project like a job,” she said. “They valued being able to put into prac­tice what they learned in the classroom.”