Wellness service sees hope, hurdles

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Dannai Harriel was excited to hear about "Live Well Allegheny," a wellness initiative launched last month by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Well, more than excited.

"Super excited," she said.

Ms. Harriel is the program manager for the Pittsburgh Health Corps, an affiliate of the national AmeriCorps community service program, and part of her job is encouraging nonprofit and community organizations to add an AmeriCorps member to their ranks.

It's a "cost-effective" way for agencies to start or grow health-related initiatives, she said. But even so, she is "still struggling" to find agencies to serve as host sites for the 2014-15 AmeriCorps service year, which begins in September.

So she is hopeful that "Live Well Allegheny," a campaign administered by the Allegheny County Health Department to promote healthy lifestyles, could well make her mission -- and AmeriCorps' -- easier to achieve, by getting organizations thinking about starting or expanding programs aimed at improving health and wellness.

"AmeriCorps members can be a perfect way to initiate some activities," said Ms. Harriel, suggesting that activities could range from work on issues such as asthma to childhood obesity to hypertension and nutrition.

"For 1,700 hours, 46 weeks, they could be dedicated to that one specific project," she said.

The launch of the "Live Well Allegheny" initiative is good timing for the Pittsburgh Health Corps for another reason.

This year, AmeriCorps -- and the Health Corps, too -- is celebrating its 20th anniversary. On Sept. 21, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the legislation creating AmeriCorps under a federal agency called the Corporation for National and Community Service. Since then, more than 820,000 people have served as AmeriCorps members in about 15,000 locations.

The Pittsburgh Health Corps, which is based at the health department, is one of a dozen AmeriCorps programs in the greater Pittsburgh area and it has a special focus on health and wellness, Ms. Harriel said.

Often, Pittsburgh Health Corps members are recent college graduates in their early 20s who have an interest in health-related issues, Ms. Harriel said. Her program is federally funded to support 18 AmeriCorps members.

Members receive health care and a stipend of about $12,000 a year, part of which is paid through a contribution by their host agency. Members who complete the program are eligible for an education funding award.

For two decades, Pittsburgh Health Corps members have contributed to the work performed by the Program for Health Care to Underserved Populations, which -- along with the Salvation Army -- operates the Birmingham Free Clinic on the South Side, said clinical director Mary Herbert.

Currently, the agency has two full-time Health Corps members who, Ms. Herbert said, "fill in a huge niche" contributing to her staff's work, which includes connecting patients to health insurance and guiding patients to eat better and to exercise more.

Pittsburgh Mercy Family Health Center, a primary care center affiliated with the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and located on the South Side, signed up its first Pittsburgh Health Corps member in August, said Sue Puhala, a care manager for behavioral health.

The Health Corps member has helped with organizing medical records, aiding uninsured patients in finding benefits and facilitating a chronic disease management groups for patients served by the center.

With their first Pittsburgh Health Corps experience a good one, the health center decided to sign up for next year, too.

"We just submitted our letter of interest for a new member," Ms. Puhala said.

Organizations interested in being host sites for Pittsburgh Health Corps members can get more information at www.nationalhealthcorps.org/pittsburgh or 412-578-8360.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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