In Praise of Special People Who Helped Make a Significant Difference

    • January 2, 2013

I likely have one of the longest ongoing relationships with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, being awarded a medical school scholarship in 1972. Over the past 40 years, RWJ helped to expand nationally three projects that I founded or co-founded, Reach Out and Read, Medical-Legal Partnership and Project Health (now HealthLeads). RWJ also supported special residency training in primary care and fellowship in child development.

During my pediatric internship, I was one of four volunteers to participate in the first primary care residency training program funded in 1973 by RWJ at Boston City Hospital under the directions of Joel Alpert, MD. Following my residency in pediatrics, I started fellowship training funded by RWJ at the Child Development Unit under the direction of T. Berry Brazelton at Children’s Hospital Boston. Margaret Mahoney, a vice president at RWJ, was the force behind this program to broaden pediatric care to include promoting early child development. She helped begin a process that led to the accredited field of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics and at least one month in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics training during pediatric residencies.

Years later, consistent with her long-term vision, Maggie as president of the Commonwealth Fund initiated with local funders a $40 million national project, which involved some support by RWJ, called Healthy Steps to promote young children’s development in the pediatric setting by including early childhood specialists as part of the pediatric medical home. Remembering my background, Maggie called on me to lead the training and implementation effort that was the basis for Healthy Steps to be included as one of the seven evidence-based programs for federal home visiting support.

Later in the late '80s colleagues and I started Reach Out and Read (ROR) to promote early literacy as part of pediatric care. RWJ contributed to its growth due to the support and advocacy of Terrence Keenan. RWJ also funded a local multisite ROR group in New Jersey. ROR now reaches about 25 percent of low-income young children nationally.

The next time I approached the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was in 2004 for funds to expand the Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) for Children. With strong support and advice from Judith Stavisky, RWJ awarded us funds for two years that helped grow the program to 220 sites. With separate funding, RWJ also supported a local New Jersey. MLP effort and one at Odessa Brown Community Health Center in Seattle.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, I started a program with a Harvard sophomore, Rebecca Onie, called Project HEALTH, now called HealthLeads, in which college undergraduates help our patients obtain community-based resources. A decade later, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation became an important funder to help develop the business model for this program.

While financial support is important, select individuals who embodied the spirit of the foundation, especially Ruby Hearn, Maggie Mahoney, Terrence Keenan, and Judith Stavisky, are special people who helped make a significant difference supporting my efforts to transform pediatric care to better meet the needs of vulnerable children and families. I thank them for their support, suggestions and wisdom as well as taking risks.