UCF Students Target Heart Health Among Orlando’s Homeless

UCF Students Target Heart Health Among Orlando’s Homeless

UCF student-volunteers with Hearts for the Homeless Orlando measure blood pressure and provide health information to John Driffin.

What started with three college students’ desire to help has evolved into a group of more than 70 UCF students who, twice a week, take to the streets of downtown Orlando to provide free blood pressure screening opportunities to homeless people.

The “Hearts for the Homeless Orlando” movement was born when the three honors students learned that hypertension is one of the leading causes of death among homeless people. High blood pressure and its related health problems are one reason that, on average, the lives of homeless people end 30 years sooner than the general population.

“It’s a silent killer, and many of these people out on the street don’t have access to information about their own health,” said UCF junior Andrew Aboujaoude, a premedical student and president of Hearts for the Homeless Orlando. “What we do is provide them information that can transform their lives – and for some even save their lives.”

Aboujaoude, senior Alexis Ghersi and junior Jennifer Carvel of UCF’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and LEAD Scholars Academy never expected their idea to take off so quickly. In August, they formed a club at UCF, expecting a handful to join. But it has grown to more than 70 – and counting – in just a few months.

Now, every Monday and Tuesday evening, they set up tables, chairs and blood-pressure monitors in a parking lot behind a downtown church not far from Lake Eola Park. More than 50 homeless people regularly gather there for meals provided by Straight Street Orlando and other charitable groups.

Some homeless people now make the health screenings a part of their routine. Perhaps even more than the health information they receive, they crave the interaction with college students who care about their wellbeing.

The meals fill their bellies, and the students watch out for their hearts – in more ways than one.

“All of the people here have been beautiful,” 56-year-old John Driffin said recently as UCF freshman Leticia Lenkiu checked his blood pressure. “I really appreciate that they take time out to come and learn and to help others.”

Some homeless people were wary, but have grown fond of the college students who visit every week.

“At first, some of them said, ‘I don’t know you, I don’t know anything about you,’” said the group’s secretary, Jennifer Carvel, who is double-majoring in psychology and biomedical sciences. “But since they see us every week, they get used to us and they’re really receptive. I think they enjoy having someone to talk to, and they like finding out about their own health.”

In April, Aboujaoude, Carvel and Ghersi took their idea to a gathering of young leaders in Berkeley, Calif., hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative University. They pitched their plan to a social venture organization called The Resolution Project, and were awarded a fellowship grant to fund the purchase of blood pressure cuffs. The organization also provided them with startup services and linked them with two mentors: Haviva Kohl, a social entrepreneur and Google manager, and Kritika Bansal of The Resolution Project.

The students make sure everyone understands they aren’t doctors, and they don’t provide medical advice. But they share the blood pressure results, along with information about what represents a healthy range, and nutrition and behaviors that can contribute to hypertension. They provide written results the homeless can take with them to charitable clinic Grace Medical Home, with whom they’ve partnered.

Ghersi is expected to graduate in May, and Aboujaoude and Carvel a year later. One reason they formally established a club at UCF is so Hearts for the Homeless Orlando will carry on when they are gone.

“A lot of the premedical students are really excited about it,” said Ghersi, a biomedical sciences major. “They care about helping the community as much as the founders do, which is really important to us.”