Our physicians heed the call of volunteerism, delivering on the promise of care – and caring – to those who need it most
In the summer of 2015, Christina Johnson, MD, PhD, was finishing her first year with Overlook’s Family Medicine residency program. Her grandmother was living with her at the time, and the two of them were enjoying a walk through Downtown Summit. Whether by fate or fortuitousness, something directed Dr. Johnson’s gaze to a sign for Family Promise, an organization that provides community-based temporary housing, meals, and social services to homeless families and those at risk of homelessness. “In this area, that’s a problem?” Dr. Johnson says she remembers thinking. “I had no idea.”
She reached out to the Union County chapter of the national group, currently in its 30th year, and submitted forms to volunteer. What began as “just a little bit” of volunteering soon blossomed into more when the Family Promise of Union County director recognized that Dr. Johnson’s professional background could help to fill a void. “A lot of our guests have needs that go beyond housing – they have emotional needs, health needs,” she explains. And so it was that Wellness Wednesdays were created; while kids partake in a reading program, Dr. Johnson meets with their parents to discuss core principles of family medicine and preventive health – the importance of vaccines, for example, and screenings and nutrition and wellness.
Dr. Johnson pulled in other members of Overlook Family Medicine, too. Judy Washington, MD, associate program director and women’s health coordinator for Overlook Family Medicine, joined Dr. Johnson as a co-investigator on a $20,000 grant the group received to promote nutrition and exercise among participating families. Says Dr. Washington, who was raised by a single mother while growing up in Birmingham, AL, “My life could have been like the lives of the families we help, but my mother had good family support. Sometimes people get knocked off course by certain circumstances. Family Promise is a pathway. It allows women to journey from a terrible situation and move on to something better. Family Promise provides a safe place and a family. These mothers just want to be independent and provide for their children.”
For Joseph Tribuna, MD, director of the Family Medicine residency program, working with Family Promise was a natural progression from volunteer work that he was already doing with his church. As part of the Family Promise of Union County program, nearly 20 houses of worship in the area band together to provide transitional housing to families in need; Dr. Tribuna’s own congregation – Church of the Little Flower in Berkeley Heights – was one of them. He lends a hand setting up and moving out beds and linens for guests. He says he’s often asked why he volunteers when he already gives so much to others as a physician. “I give my heart and soul to being a doctor, but volunteering is a separate entity,” he explains. “It feels good to help people in need. It makes you a better person in general. It’s therapeutic – it’s a part of wellness, actually.”
Stuart Green, DMH, LCSW, associate director of the Family Medicine residency program and director of Behavioral Sciences at Overlook, also threw his support behind Dr. Johnson’s efforts with Family Promise. When it became clear that Family Promise had a greater need for counseling services, he helped to forge a connection between the organization and counselors from the doctoral program in psychology at Morristown’s College of St. Elizabeth. “Family medicine is inherently community-oriented,” he says, “and supporting Family Promise is another way to support our community. In the world we live in, in which people facing challenges are not always adequately cared for, the role of community organizations is absolutely vital.”
To date, the team of Overlook Family Medicine physicians has delivered three health fairs for Family Promise – each larger and more successful than the one before it – and additional fairs will surely follow. They serve not only as a means to inject education, screenings and services into the heart of the community, but also as an opportunity to see the difference these services can make.
“The fairs are a little bit of a reunion,” says Dr. Johnson. “You see the same family you helped three months earlier, but now they have a job and an apartment and they are doing well. It’s so rewarding when you see these ‘graduate families’ come back. For many, turning to Family Promise is their most vulnerable moment – they never saw themselves as being in that position of needing so much help. To see these families at their lowest and then help them rise above it – to have a real investment in the community – it’s wonderful.”