Uncommon Talent: Chinwe Onyekere, Executive Director for Project HEALTH
As New York’s Executive Director of Project HEALTH, a nonprofit helping to break the link between poverty and poor health, Chinwe Onykere is working hard to get low-income families the resources they need through innovative volunteer services. In the urban hospitals and health centers where Project HEALTH’s Family Help Desk programs operate, physicians can “prescribe” food, housing, job training, fuel assistance, health insurance, or other resources for their low-income patients as routinely as they do medication. Located in the clinic waiting room and staffed by college volunteers, these Family Help Desks “fill” these prescriptions by connecting patients with key community resources.
With a commitment to improving the benefits of health care for those in need, Chinwe is using her ten years of experience in the health care field to help address one of the most important social issues facing our nation today.
Commongood Careers recently sat down with Chinwe to hear her thoughts on some of the key issues which are impacting her work, including how the new Social Innovation Fund will affect healthcare in America, and why diversity in the nonprofit sector is now more important then ever.
What attracted you to this position and what do you personally hope to accomplish at Project HEALTH in the next few years?
Most of my previous experience as a professional in the nonprofit sector has centered on reversing disparities in healthcare. Project HEALTH’S mission to improve healthcare for families on a national scale is what really got me excited about the position. I really liked the idea of the Family Help Desk because it is an innovative, yet very simple idea that makes a significant impact on improving healthcare for families in need.
At this point, growth is very important to me and I hope that we will be able to reach out to many more communities in need and continue to improve upon the Family Help Desk model to make it as efficient as possible. Also, I think working in the New Yorksite, which serves urban hospitals such as Bellevue and Harli, presents us with a unique opportunity to think about how we can deliver our services more effectively.
First Lady Michelle Obama recently mentioned Project HEALTH in her speech about the Social Innovation Fund at the Time 100 Most Influential People Awards. How will Project HEALTH and other organizations like it be impacted by the fund?
First, I have to say that I was beyond thrilled to have Michelle Obama mention Project HEALTH in her speech; it was a true honor for all of us at the organization.
I believe the Social Innovation Fund will provide phenomenal opportunities for Project HEALTH and organizations like it to engage in a larger dialogue around healthcare reform. The message that the Fund delivers touches upon the three critical ideas that are crucial to the mission of Project HEALTH; these are, preventative health, social innovation and volunteerism. Galvanizing young people to have a positive effect on their communities, as well as scaling and providing growth capital for nonprofits that are using innovative approaches, will force major impact on the entire sector.
Diversity has always been an issue for the nonprofit sector. Do you have any advice or best practice ideas for attracting a diversified candidate pool during the hiring process?
I think that being open to people from different sectors and professional backgrounds can be a good thing for nonprofits that focus on social entrepreneurship. Bringing in a professional who can look at things with a fresh set of eyes can be really helpful when it comes to probli solving. During the hiring process it is important for nonprofits to look for their talent in unusual places. It’s important to look beyond the typical arena of candidate pools to find people who can help strategically address a nonprofit’s social mission.
How do you think the recent economy has affected the need for talent in nonprofit organizations that support the healthcare industry?
I think the same outside-the-box approach to diversity hiring is a similar idea when it comes to attracting talent to nonprofits in the current economy. Looking for those change makers who understand how to tackle problems with very few resources is a high priority. It is now more important than ever to find someone who is able to effectively seek out and use every available resource, as well as make connections with individuals who can serve as thought partners for the organization. Promoting and developing a volunteer base is a good example of strategically using available resources. This idea aligns with Project HEALTH’S model by mobilizing a traditional source in a new way.
Project HEALTH is made possible by a large student volunteer base. What advice would you give to those students interested in beginning a career in nonprofit healthcare?
Volunteer based programs like Project HEALTH’S Help Desk can be a very influential experience for those students interested in a career in healthcare. Our student volunteers commit to one year of service at six hours per week with intensive training at the beginning. By making a commitment like this, our students are able to gain in-depth insight into the world of public health. I have seen a number of them have transformative experiences that end up affecting their chosen career path. For instance, some of our student volunteers go on to pursue a career in public health or community advocacy or policy. Regardless of what they end up doing, they are all more informed about what needs to be done to improve healthcare in low income populations. What is really special about the volunteer program is that it brings together an eclectic group of people with different points of view. Their experience and interaction, both with each other and the families they serve, creates new energy and solves problems with innovative ideas for family healthcare.
You can learn more about Project HEALTH by visiting http://www.projecthealth.org