Each day, Jasmine Drake (Col ’13) heads to the basement of the William Howard Taft Educational Campus in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood, where she and her colleagues bring health care and health education to the students.
The clinic has a waiting room with two big, bright bulletin boards Drake covers with information on asthma, influenza and nutrition. Down the hall are exam rooms for medical, dental and mental health services.
The Taft campus is one building that houses six high schools and two middle schools in New York School District 9—which, according to the New York governor’s office, has more failing schools than any other district in the city. Many of the schools in this campus suffer from poor attendance and low performance. Its Bronx High School of Business, for example, has a four-year graduation rate of 39 percent, vs. the 70 percent average in New York City.
The students are suffering, too: the Bronx is the least healthy county in New York state, and has high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and respiratory disease, including asthma—chronic diseases that disproportionately affect impoverished populations, according to a 2011 study by Gallup. The congressional district has double the city and country’s rates of poverty: 40 percent of adults and 53 percent of children live below the poverty line.
Drake knew what she was getting into; she grew up in the South Bronx. “I grew up seeing a lot of violence, a lot of addiction, a lot of teen pregnancy, death, chronic illnesses that are preventable. I feel like it was my duty to come back,” she says.
Drake’s employer is the nonprofit Montefiore Medical Center, which operates 10 hospitals and 150 ambulatory care sites in New York, including 23 clinics in schools throughout the Bronx. At the Taft campus, Montefiore offers services free of charge to the 1,500 students who have enrolled in its program (out of 2,200 students). Funding comes from city, state and federal grants, private foundations and individual donors.
At the clinic, Drake coordinates health education workshops for students on reproductive health, physical activity, nutrition and mental health. She runs the Cooking Matters program, a free cooking class for high school students sponsored by City Harvest, a nonprofit focused on feeding New York’s hungry.
Drake led her first healthy cooking classes at UVA, where she was the program assistant at the Lorna Sundberg International Center. She entered UVA expecting to apply to medical school; an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic changed that. “One day we did dental education for elementary school students. They only visited a doctor once a year. I kept thinking, ‘How do they stay healthy?’”
Education and outreach were the answers—the kind of work she is doing now. Drake came back to UVA that spring and switched from pre-med to doing work on social determinants of health, to learn to help individuals stay healthy if they didn’t have access to health care, she says.
After graduation, Drake headed back to New York and joined AmeriCorps for two years, doing community health outreach at a health center. At the end of her service, she wanted to continue that work. “This community is near and dear to me,” she says.
One happy surprise of Drake’s job was finding two other UVA alumnae—Rachel Creagan (Col ’07), a licensed clinical social worker, and Aliya Carter (Col ’02), a dentist—both working in the Taft clinic. Additionally, the principal of Bronx Collegiate Academy, on the campus, is alumnus Darryl White (Col ’90).
Creagan meets with students for individual psychotherapy, parenting work and evaluations for mental health concerns. “One of the reasons I chose social work instead of psychology specifically is that I’m really interested in how the environment and people’s social and cultural factors influence mental health,” she says.
Carter, the dentist, provides preventive care to the students, including examinations, X-rays, sealants and fillings. She worked in a private practice before joining the school health program last year. “I don’t look like the typical dentist,” says Carter. “I look more like the students. It gets them excited about dentistry, and that makes me feel like I am making a difference.”
“The staff all have diverse skills and reasons for being here—most are either motivated by a passion for the material they teach or driven by a desire to help this population,” says Laura Messing, a community health manager for the Montefiore program. “Jasmine falls into both categories. Coming from the South Bronx, she’s not seen as an outsider. She has intrinsic knowledge of these kids—‘I know where you’ve come from; I’ve been there, too.’”