Kerry* has been living on his own since the day he turned 18 – the day he came out to his mom as transgender. The response to Kerry’s coming out was not one of love and support, just the opposite; Kerry’s mom told him to leave the house and never come back. Since then, Kerry has been coming to Children’s Health Fund’s Teen Van in the San Francisco Bay Area for all his medical care.
Today, Kerry’s visit was different. A week earlier, Kerry had been assaulted on the street and had to go to the emergency room. Now, with his bruises and cuts still healing, he had an infection and needed help urgently. Kerry knew where to go – the LGBTQ Youth Space in San Jose, and he knew who he could see – the same providers from Children’s Health Fund he knew and trusted.
It wasn’t always that way though. When our team first met Kerry, living on the street had given him a rough edge and he was not approachable. In one of his first visits, after learning that he had been kicked out of the house by his mom, our medical provider asked Kerry if he’d had any contact with his dad, and he told her “…not since he threatened to kill my mom and we had him arrested.” That same session Kerry told our social worker that he kept a syringe with him at all times – not because he was a junkie, but in case he wanted to commit suicide.
In the years we have been seeing Kerry, our health care team has been working with him to identify things in his life that he values, and things about himself that he likes. This strength and asset-based approach – delivered with compassion – has proven effective with Kerry and hundreds more high-risk LGBTQ youth who, not unlike him, are out on their own, shunned by their family, and living on the streets. Social workers provide group classes on topics such as violence and dating, anxiety and relaxation, communication in relationships, eating disorders, body image and drug and alcohol education. They are a positive lifeline to young people living on the edge.
This was my first visit to Children’s Health Fund’s San Francisco program, a partnership with Stanford Children’s Health and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Together, our program provides expert care for the community’s high-risk kids and other young adults ages 10 to 25. Many young people the program sees rely exclusively on the Teen Van as their only link to a network of services and information they desperately need. It’s an impressive operation and is fully integrated with other community anchors such as high schools and shelters whose employees refer teens to the program, provide space for clinic activities, and work collaboratively with the Teen Van team to assure a safety net of health care, social services and educational programs. For Kerry and others like him, all services, medications, and supplies are provided at no charge.
Since 1996, there have been more than 15,000 visits with more than 4,500 unique patients served through this partnership. The Children’s Health Fund and Stanford Children’s Health Teen Van is making a difference within the Bay area’s underserved youth population. The return visit rate is more than 70% illustrating how highly engaged the youth are with the program. Our patients are approximately 60% young women and 40% young men. It’s an impressive operation and I’m not the only one that thinks so. The Teen Van has been nationally recognized and honored by the Office of Adolescent Health’s program Think, Act, Grow® (TAG) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a successful strategy for improving adolescent health.
In visiting this amazing program, I was reminded that out of adversity often comes great achievement. And especially in today’s political climate, it is important that we pause to recognize and celebrate the programs and people that make positive change happen. The few but dedicated health care providers of the Teen Van – a doctor, a nurse-practitioner, a social worker, a dietitian, a medical assistant, and a registrar/driver – are each a front line hero: inspiring, humbling and impactful. They make a world of difference in every life they touch.
*Kerry is not our patient’s real name and is representative of the young people our program in San Francisco serves.