The members of Schweitzer Fellow Marvin So’s Whole Health Action Group (WHAG) are living on the roughest edges of our society: they are homeless men, many of whom are struggling with their mental health and recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
Despite their difficult circumstances―and the societal stigma they face because of them―So says they’re as motivated to achieve independence and wellness as anyone else he knows.
“It only takes an hour of cracking jokes and sharing stories with these fellows to remind me how thin the dividing line is, and why I’m passionate about this work,” says So, a graduate student at Harvard School of Public Health. “They are hard-working, gregarious, and resilient individuals just trying to eke some good out of this life―just like any one of us. Our support groups have become a space for reflection, meditation, encouragement, goal-setting, and reciprocal learning for all of us.”
So launched WHAG in collaboration with the Cambridge HealthCare for the Homeless Program. The weekly two-hour groups focus mind-body resiliency, person-centered goal setting, and health promotion around salient issues such as nutrition, anger management, and hypertension. Using a group peer support model, the ultimate goal of the WHAG is to enhance participants’ ownership of their health. That’s a great end in itself for participants, but So also sees it as a step toward empowering them to become purposeful advocates for positive change in their lives as a whole.
“Chronic physical and mental health conditions can be incredibly challenging to manage, particularly when an individual is struggling with additional mental health and substance use issues,” says So. “My hope is that beyond the group meetings we have weekly, the friendships, goal-setting skills, and health self-management skills will endure.”
So has already a heard from one WHAG member who has successfully applied what he learned in the groups to his life.
A few weeks ago, So planned a group discussion on the importance of attitude in the context of homelessness, recovery from addiction, and mental health. He was anxious that no would engage that the men wouldn’t have much to say. “These guys aren’t the most touchy-feely fellows in the world,” he explains.
To So’s surprise, members were very interested in the topic. They even began helping each other understand such concepts as “self-talk,” the internal voice that determines how we perceive situations and events; and “negative self-talk,” in which that voice becomes unrealistic or self-defeating. A few days later, a WHAG member told So that his newfound awareness of negative self-talk helped prevent him from spiraling into a situation where he would have ended up drinking when he found himself in a heated argument with someone―a relapse that would have jeopardized his current shelter placement.
“This story really sticks with me because it reinforced the importance of having skills for preventing and navigating unhealthful environments in order to lead a healthy life,” says So. “It also shows how important it is to build upon the inherent strengths of individuals as they work to live a healthier lifestyle.”
So came into his fellowship project serendipitously. When he moved to Boston for graduate school, the search for an opportunity to continue the work with homeless individuals and families he had been doing back home in the San Francisco Bay Area led him to Cambridge Health Care for the Homeless. The organization quickly put their newest volunteer to work on creating a health support group for homeless men they had been trying to launch for quite some time.
“I sat with them, talking them through similar support groups I had run in San Francisco and the pieces just seemed to fit together,” So recalls. “I was tasked with developing a plan for assessing community needs, readiness to change, compiling a curriculum from evidence-based sources, and creating a framework for implementation and evaluation. Soon after I began this gargantuan task, I found out about the Schweitzer Fellowship, which would enable me to really invest time into this important work, as well as provide meaningful structure, feedback, and technical guidance. It’s been a whirlwind ever since!”
So says he is honored to join the ranks of Schweitzer Fellows and Fellows for Life, a group of people “whose life trajectories and passions truly seem to live up to the values of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.”
He is fond of quoting Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless and the 2013 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism recipient, who had this to say in his commencement address at Boston University last spring:
“Never lose your sense of wonder. What becomes routine for you is often a singular and terrifying ordeal for those you are caring for. Wonder keeps us going. We are humbled by the courageous stories by those who have had to live this life.”
“Being a Schweitzer Fellow means embodying this conviction to never cease humbly serving, and never cease wondering,” So says. “I believe that public service is the most foundational way in which we can come to know the world around us and how we can best contribute. I am a proud AmeriCorps alumnus, current Schweitzer Fellow, and ultimately I hope to dedicate my career and life to public service.”