Barbershops and church basements. Roller derby rinks and a refugee health clinic. The places where you can find people from Penn Medicine giving back and making a difference in their local communities are as varied as you can possibly imagine.
For more than a decade, Penn Medicine has provided financial support to help staff, faculty, and students to extend their impact on the community through the Penn Medicine CAREs grant program. The grants of up to $2,000 each allow recipients to purchase supplies or other resources for their outside volunteer efforts.
Penn Medicine CAREs opened for applications in January 2012 and announced its first slate of winners in March of that year. Applications are always open, and grants have been awarded on a quarterly basis ever since.
The program has provided more than $880,000 in funding in over 880 awards to support service initiatives across the regions Penn Medicine serves. It is on track to surpass 1,000 total grants awarded in 2023.
“The passion for service among people who work here is incredibly inspiring,” says Laura Lombardo, manager of Community Relations for Penn Medicine, who oversees the CAREs grant program. “You see someone who, nine to five during the day, works as a secretary for a unit in one of our hospitals, and then on the weekends they’re feeding the homeless and they’re out with their kids really giving back to the community. People like that are just golden.”
After running for more than ten years, the CAREs grant program has had opportunities to award multiple grants to organizations and initiatives that have longstanding relationships with Penn Medicine staff and Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) students. Many of these are organizations whose service missions are deeply intertwined with Penn’s, such as centers where PSOM students and Penn Medicine faculty have volunteered for decades like the United Community Clinic (UCC), University City Hospitality Coalition (UCHC), Unity Health Clinic, and Puentes de Salud.
CAREs grants over the years have funded programs and supplies at UCC’s free health clinic in West Philadelphia ranging from covering the costs of eyeglasses and vision exams for patients, to HIV testing supplies, as well as support for UCC’s popular bicycle rodeo that combines a bike and helmet giveaway for youth with an all-ages community health fair.
UCHC is home to numerous community programs including a student-run medical clinic that has used CAREs funding to purchase new laptops and medical supplies, and the Service Link program that connects community members with social services.
Unity Health Clinic in South Philadelphia is staffed by volunteer physicians, nurse practitioners, and health professional trainees from the University of Pennsylvania and Villanova University. CAREs grants in recent years have funded a musculoskeletal clinic, telehealth technology, and supplies to help patients with testing and monitoring supplies for high blood pressure and diabetes.
Often, Penn Medicine staff and students find that a CAREs grant can help them take their ideas for community service to a new level and support the launch of new efforts. For example, the interdisciplinary Center for Surgical Health (CSH) at Penn Medicine was created to improve access to and navigation through surgical care for Philadelphia’s underserved communities. Lauren Rossi, CSH’s program manager, recently received a CAREs grant to help the center’s patients with one of their biggest challenges: access to reliable transportation to surgical appointments. Transportation needs for patients differ, ranging from one trip the day of surgery to five days a week for three months for chemotherapy treatment required before the surgery, and the grant helps support funding for taxi services and parking passes.
The relationships forged between Penn Medicine students and staff with the communities they serve grow and deepen over the years. One of the earliest CAREs grants awarded in 2012 went to Kenji Taylor, MD, then a PSOM student, for Cut Hypertension, a program he had helped create with other students in 2010 to offer preventive screening and health education, especially to Black men, in West Philadelphia barbershops. Taylor went on to establish more chapters of Cut Hypertension across the country and expand this model of community health outreach, while generations of PSOM students continue to maintain relationships with Philadelphia barbershops year after year. The relationships are so strong that barbershop and salon owners turned to PSOM students for help managing COVID-19 risks early in the pandemic.
When the CAREs grant program began, Penn Medicine was a health system with three hospitals, all in Philadelphia. As the system grew to include more hospital entities from across the region, starting with Chester County Hospital in 2013, Lancaster General Health in 2015, and Princeton Health in 2018, staff from all of these hospitals began to take part in the CAREs grant program. As a result, Penn Medicine’s impact on communities across the wider region has grown.
In 2018, the Penn Medicine CAREs program secured additional funding and was able to double the number of grants given out each year. Since 2019, a recipient of a CAREs grant each year has been selected to receive an annual CAREs Community Champion Award with an additional $5,000 to support their chosen volunteer effort or organization, in recognition of that individual’s sustained commitment to community.
Today, representatives from across Penn Medicine review applications for CAREs grants as part of the quarterly selection process. Lombardo makes herself available to help staff strengthen their applications before submission, even matching people up with others across the organization who can be mentors with similar community service goals.
The selection committee looks at the community needs that a grant will support, and the strongest applications are those that align with health needs identified through the community health needs assessment process completed by Penn Medicine’s hospitals every three years. The committee also considers how the program will evaluate and report outcomes.
Last year, one in five grants went to programs related to food services — a crucial need, as food insecurity is a major issue affecting health across the region. But overall the ways that Penn Medicine staff and students give back through CAREs grants are incredibly diverse. Ten percent supported education, for example, and six percent aimed to help people who lack adequate housing.
CAREs grants act as an amplifier of community outreach in more ways than one. They not only provide funding to give community-based programs a boost, but each CAREs recipient who shares their experience can be a catalyst for others who want to help others in need, wherever they are.
Grace Hanson, for example, an administrative assistant in Plastic Surgery, received a CAREs grant last year to provide care packages for emotional support to members of her church who are caregivers to ill or aging family members at home.
“Caregivers are one population who don’t ask for help. They struggle and they don’t want to say they’re hurting,” Hanson said. “With the Penn Medicine CAREs grant, I know our program will go further, and we hope to inspire others to take action to support caregivers in their communities.”