“Yes, If You Have the Right Tools.”

Health as Right ESL Class, Day 1
-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator
“If you had the power to change one thing about your community, what would you change?” I asked the students. This is the question student groups must answer on their first day with the Health as Right Program, which leads to the service projects they choose to create. Today, it was the turn of Ms. Smiles’ ESL English class at Yorktown High School, which is incorporating the Health as Right Program into their curriculum this semester.
Students are always hesitant to answer at first, but once the first person speaks up, it becomes an outpouring. Youth have something to say; they just never get asked.
This board shows the ideas they came up with. The one that got voted for the problem they will address with their service project is racism.
“But that’s such a big problem. We can’t fix that,” commented Chinua.
“But I wanted to do something to help the poor,” said Ayla.
“There’s nothing to stop you from doing something about all of these problems, even those we don’t do as a group,” responded Ms. Smiles.
“But I’m only one person,” said Ayla.
Ms. Smiles stood in the front and got their attention. “Even if we can’t solve the whole problem, we can still solve small pieces of it. Even if we can only help one person, or 10 people, or 20 people, then that makes a difference to that one person. This isn’t just about this one problem, or about  these seven problems. It’s about showing you that you have the power to make a difference and every one of you will be involved in many things in your lifetimes where that power will carry over,” she said with conviction.
She paused, then added, “And remember that Ghandi was only one. Jesus Christ was only one. Muhammad was only one. Never doubt that each one of you has power.”
Kagumbo raised his hand. “Miss, can a person fly?” he asked half-jokingly. “You just said one person has power.” The class giggled.
Ms. Smiles looked at him and answered, “Yes, if they have the right tools.”
“A ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.”
-John A. Shedd
#healthasright #youthteams
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The Health as Right ESL Class

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator
This week I observed the ESL English class of Ms. Smiles, the Yorktown High School teacher collaborating with CHHR to integrate the Health as Right Program into her curriculum this semester. If the school’s Office of Minority Achievement finds that the program has meaningfully empowered the students, it will be expanded to other ESL classes in the school next semester.
“Mr. Ron, is this your last week?” asked Gobinder from the desk next to me before class started, a student I have formed a friendship with.
“I’ll be here the whole semester,” I said with a smile. “I work for a program that will be doing service with your class. I’ll get to tell you about it next week.” We high-fived.
The class meets 5 days a week. The students will do the Health as Right Program on 2 of those days. On Mondays, they will work on planning and carrying out service projects which they will design to solve problems they want to change in the community. On Wednesdays, they will do our human rights curriculum, which strengthens their capacity to express their ideas about the kind of world they want to create.
I presented Ms. Smiles with the version of the curriculum tailored to this group after the week of observation. Parts of it are translated into Spanish, Mongolian, Turkish, Amharic, and Punjabi; the native languages of the group.
“Is this Turkish? Ayla will love this!” said Ms. Smiles about one of our students.
“We work with a lot of refugee groups who have found that an effective way to empower refugees is to strengthen their sense of cultural identity,” I described. “I want the students to be able to look at parts of the curriculum and say, ‘That belongs to me.'”
Many cultures converge in our city. I imagine a world where youth of diverse backgrounds can find unity in a culture of meaningful conversations and service. A cheers to the experiment of turning dreams to reality.
“Where, after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt
#healthasright #youthteams
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A Movement Foments

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator

Yesterday after school in the backroom of a cafeteria, the students of the George Mason High School Health as Right Club had their first meeting. For their first project, they will create a forum at school for students to discuss this: “What do you think our school is missing?” They will use the insights from these conversations to plan service projects to improve the school.
“Can this count for service hours?” asked one of the students.
“I don’t want to advertise our club like that,” said another. “I want the members to join because they are genuinely passionate about creating change.”

In the evening, 2 hours away in Richmond, students of the VCU Health as Right Club gathered in a library for their first meeting. A project they are passionate about is creating spaces of conversation about sexual assault.
“People don’t talk about sexual assault, then so many men are ignorant about what it is,” said one of the student leaders.

Today, I spoke on the phone with an administrator from Walt Whitman Middle School. “A group of students were at a teacher’s house recently talking about how they could help immigrants,” she said. They will implement our program after school as a platform for their students to translate their desires for change into reality.

“We truly have more civic and human rights minded youth than we give them credit for,” commented the administrator.

All across Virginia, a culture of social action is fomenting, engaging young people of all ages. As it grows, it is changing the community’s perception of the youth and the perception of the youth of themselves from an image of distracted people with no deep thoughts about the community or the world to an image of people who contribute to one of a generation yearning for change, swelling with ideas about how to create it and the will and passion to work for it.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Meade

(Image: project brainstorming at the VCU group.)

#healthasright #youthteams

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Kilmer Interest Booth

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator

Doing an interest booth at Kilmer Middle School.

“If you had the power to change one thing about your community, that if it changed, it would make people live healthier and better lives, what would you change?” I ask the middle schoolers.

“Higher minimum wage,” answers Aryan quickly. “If people had a higher wage, they could stay in their jobs, and there would be less poverty.”

“More homeless aid,” answers Natalie. “There are so many homeless people, and there should be more shelters and places to get food to help them.”

“Less pollution in the air,” answers Lauren after a thoughtful pause. “If there were less toxins in the air we breathe, less people would get sick.”

“Discrimination. It’s just a really big problem,” answers Sophie.

“Put grates over the sewers,” answers Cid. “My science teacher says that a lot of pollution goes in the ocean through sewers, so we could prevent it with grates.”

“Don’t put so many pesticides in the grass,” answers Varun. “Because when it rains, it goes into natural environments and kills the fish.”

“Less pollution in watersheds,” answers Neil. “The watershed that provides water to Virginia also provides for 6 states, who all contribute a lot of pollution to it. We have to work on keeping our drinking water clean.”

“Poverty,” answers Zack after a pause. “A lot of people aren’t able to do the things they want just because they don’t have money. I want people to be able to have fun.”

“Our program is looking for youth with ideas like yours,” I tell the students. Many express interest to come to the interest meeting.

“Has anyone asked you that question before?” I ask Zack.
“No,” he answers.
“That’s a shame, because you’ve obviously thought about it. And you obviously have ideas,” I say with a smile.

“We already have everything we need… all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”

-Pema Chodron

#healthasright #youthteams

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To Make Youth Strong

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator

Yorktown High School

I sat in the Director for Minority Achievement’s office as she advised a young senior at her desk.
“What’s the point anyway?” asked the senior of immigrant background. “I can’t go to college. I can’t work. There won’t be options for me.”
“I recommend staying in school one year longer. For one, school isn’t free after high school,” counseled the Director. “Also, it might give time for things to change…” A silent pause ensued.

“Tell me about the background of the teachers I’m speaking to,” I asked the Director as we walked down the hall, laughing students running past us.
“They’re all ESL teachers,” she said. “Our ESL students get left out of most extracurricular activities. For one, many of them can’t stay after school. Your program would have to be during their class. We want it to be the thing at this school that is for them.”

“If you had the power to change one thing about your community, that if it changed, it would cause people to live healthier and better lives, what would you change?” I asked the teachers of the meeting the first question I ask students in our program. “After our students brainstorm problems in the places where they live that they would be passionate about changing, our Center provides them resources to create service projects to translate their wishes into reality,” I described.

“This semester, I can teach books on the themes of justice and human rights to go along with your curriculum,” said the English teacher whose class will serve as the pilot for the in-class version of the Health as Right Program this semester.
“And if it empowers the students, we can expand it to the other ESL classes next semester. These students can be the ambassadors,” added the Director. Next week, I will attend the English teacher’s class every day to get a sense of how she teaches and how the students learn. Then we will consult on how to organically integrate our program into her lessons.
“See you next week!” said the English teacher excitedly. We shook hands and parted.

I walked out of the school, a background check application in hand now that I will be a regular presence, pausing to reflect and appreciating my smallness in the face of our charge. To make our youth stronger, by helping them discover in themselves those things which no one in this world can steal; their convictions about the value of human beings, their imagination of a different kind of world, and their sense of possibility that they can create that world through service to humanity. To give them permission to express these treasures folded inside them in layers of uncertainty and fear, to normalize them until they become a culture.

I am not worthy to be the one to shape a young person’s mind. But I am here, so I’ll do my best. Friends on their way to their next classes laugh as I walk through the hallway, full of dreams and a sense of possibility about the way the world can be. My dreams for the future are wrapped up in these young people.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

-Yorktown student art in the hallway

#healthasright #youthteams

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“Virginia Medical Update”

An interview the Center for Health and Human Rights did which aired a month ago on local TV, where we explained our Health as Right School Program. There were 8 schools in our program at the time of the interview. To date, the program is engaging student community builders in 15 high schools, middle schools, and colleges.
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Dr. Yamin Visit

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator

Today, the Center for Health and Human Rights’ staff were privileged to meet with Dr. Alicia Yamin who took time to visit our clinic. A professor of law at Georgetown University and  leading scholar on health and human rights, she has worked in countries around the world studying issues such as poverty and the health impacts of gender inequality.

She is interested in supporting our high school program, sharing our philosophy that youth are particularly important to engage in the dream of a culture of health and human rights because the values of the youth will become the culture of the future. “I think youth are the experts about what it is like to live in their reality. They just need to be given the words to tell their stories,” she said.

In between her work with the UN and other social development groups, she has graciously agreed to commit time to meeting with our high school teams throughout the year, especially our ESL students, to learn about their experience and empower them to cultivate their voice to articulate their experience of human rights or lack thereof.

As she left, she autographed our copy of her latest book on our office bookshelf, “Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter.”

“In development and social policy, health has conventionally been construed in terms other than ‘as a right,’ so it is worth exploring what it would mean for… anyone – to claim health as a right.”

-Dr. Yamin, Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity

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Patient Profile: Firouz Khafaji

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator

The Center for Health and Human Rights began our support of Firouz in 2016. A young immigrant from Iran, Firouz worked two non-stop jobs as a waitress and an evening nurse when she unexpectedly felt a crippling pain in her legs. She was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the blood that destroys body functioning. Her chemotherapy began that day.

Unable to work due to the effects of the leukemia and chemotherapy, Firouz lost both jobs and her health coverage, though the supervisor of her restaurant contributed to her treatment costs for the first 6 months because she had been such a hard worker. CHHR then took full responsibility for the costs of her treatments, organizing tireless benefit events until she could be enrolled in Medicaid. Firouz also received numerous visits in the hospital from CHHR staff and community to keep her spirits high throughout the painful chemotherapy process.

In 2017, CHHR also carried out a campaign to find Firouz a bone marrow donor match. As her treatments continue, the Center continues to lighten Firouz’s load by covering the full costs of her rent during the next year when she will not be able to work. Please join us in our support of a truly deserving patient and individual!

Contribute to Firouz’s campaign here. Any contribution counts!:

“I want to appreciate them [the donors] for being so kind to me. They’re sending me positive energy, and they want to save my life. I like them truly from all of my heart.”

-Firouz Khafaji

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Patient Profile: Maryam Hatami

-Ron Lapitan, Former Community Outreach Coordinator

The Center for Health and Human Rights began our support of Maryam Hatami in 2015. A university student from Iran who immigrated to Northern VA to study, Maryam discovered a lump in her breast but decided not to seek medical attention, hoping instead that the lump would disappear because she had no health insurance. When CHHR offered her a free biopsy, the Center diagnosed her with an advanced stage of breast cancer and urged an immediate surgery chemotherapy to stop the aggressive mass.

Because Maryam and her husband came to Northern VA without family or a community of support, they could not afford the $30,000 treatments. CHHR’s team became her community of support and took full responsibility for the costs, spending the next month tirelessly organizing benefit events and outreach. The community responded with an outpouring of support in the form of individual donations, fundraisers by middle school groups, and a benefit concert hosted by Persian pop singer and CHHR board member Rana Mansour. By the end of the year, Maryam had completed the surgery and chemotherapy. In addition, she had no debts thanks to the support of the CHHR community.

6 months later, Maryam’s breast cancer has returned at a time when her husband has been laid off from work, and the couple is struggling financially. CHHR continues to support her and plans to organize more benefit events to assist with her treatments. Please join us in our continued support of a truly deserving patient and individual!

Hear Maryam tell her story here:

Contribute to Maryam’s campaign here. Any contribution counts!:

“Sometimes you might feel that this moment is the end of the world. You are tired of fighting for your life back, but the fact is we should never give up. We have to keep our minds sharp and our spirits strong.”

-Maryam Hatami

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Free Sports Physicals

Today, the Center for Health and Human Rights traveled to one of the schools in our program to do free sports physicals so the students could enroll in sports. The student body of the International High School in Langley Park in Maryland is 100% immigrants and refugees, most of whom are without insurance. “A sports physical costs $80-$100,” commented Dr. Milani​ as we drove to the school. In all, we saw about twenty students, about $2,000 in free services.

In the beginning, the school was a series of trailer classrooms. As the school rapidly grows, they have moved to a larger brick building. School staff led us to some empty rooms which had not yet been furnished, which we converted into stations to take vitals, test urine samples, and run other tests to pass the athletes for sports. Then we began calling students from the hall, bustling with eager young athletes.

I checked their forms as they left the clinic. “Can you give me the answer now?” asked one boy nervously as I checked his papers. “Am I able to play?”
“You’re all set,” I said with a smile, looking over the doctor’s notes. His face brightened, and he walked out with his head high. Then I felt the importance of these exams to the students. To participate in sports is an opportunity to grow, to nurture the personality. Is the need to grow any less essential to these students than to those at any of the other, more privileged high schools in our program?

“This is one of my soccer players,” said Vice-Principal Sass who doubles as the soccer coach, who explained that one of his boys did a sports physical at a minute clinic, which didn’t pass him because of a high heart rate. Then he took a cardio test which showed that his heart had returned to normal, but he would not be able to see his doctor until November to retake the exam and pass for sports.
“Can he take the test with you, or does he have to wait for his other doctor?” Mr. Sass asked Dr. Milani.
“Then he’ll pay another $80,” answered Dr. Milani quickly. “We’ll see him here.” Our doctors never say no.

“Is my heartbeat-friend okay?” asked Mr. Sass with a humorous tone as the boy left the testing area. Dr. Milani approved him.
“Then I’ll see you at practice tomorrow,” said Mr. Sass, patting him on the shoulder.

“I would be happy to see him again at our clinic. Absolutely free,” said Dr. Milani to a boy who didn’t pass the exam and his coach, even offering to drive him if he had no means of transport.

It changes you, watching the selflessness of our staff, smiling widely and laughing fully as they work because using their skills to serve is their element. We are at home with the staff of this school, who also thrive on the joy of giving of themselves to watch others grow. To develop as whole individuals with a sense of their full potentials.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

-Mahatma Ghandi

(Image: Nurse assistant Tinoosh​ prepare’s to take a student’s vitals.)

#healthasright #CHHR

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