Recruitment started in 1994 with 22 in the first set of classes, which were held at Halifax Medical Center, in Daytona Beach, Fla. They ended with 25 volunteers, 'reverse attrition.' Two more sets of classes were offered and a total of 59 volunteers were trained as lay health educators.

Dr. Richard Bennett, who now serves as president of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and Hale then worked together to find out what the clergy and laity thought about medical-religious partnerships. A national sample of clergy and laity showed that they were amenable to partnering and the areas they were most interested in were: health-related classes, screenings and preventive interventions such as vaccinations.

Hale and his associates were not the first to work on medical-religious partnerships but the model of educating lay volunteers to work in health care ministries was a first. Project REACH provided an opportunity to look forward, to develop a model of care that would be useful at that time and serve as a blueprint for the future, a means to meet the challenges of an aging society with ever increasing chronic conditions.

'… Potential to save lives'

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Hale and Bennett's book, "Building Healthy Communities Through Medical-Religious Partnerships," describes "an innovative approach to the development of community-based health education and patient advocacy programs targeted at the prevention and management of disease." Already in its second edition, the book shows that partnering between health care systems and religions organizations, in Florida, can be remarkably successful at bringing appropriate care to people who are often difficult to serve. In his review of the book, Dr. Harold Koenig, of Duke University, said the book is way ahead of its time. Dr. Pat Fosarelli, who does reviews for the Journal of the American Medical Association, said, "The book literally has the potential to save lives."

"Healing Bodies and Souls: A Practical Guide for Congregations," co-authored by Hale and Dr. Harold Koenig, a psychologist, "offers a practical and engaging primer on developing a variety of initiatives for pastors, parish nurses, lay leaders and concerned parishioners. Their short volume mixes real-life congregational case studies with vital information to equip congregations in helping properly manage illness, navigate the healthcare labyrinth, manage or avoid disability, and even provide some life-saving and preventative medical services. While their case studies report on the many kinds of engagement congregations have taken on, each chapter also provides basic information on the most common healthcare challenges - diabetes, skin cancer, strokes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, breast cancer, prostate cancer, glaucoma, and depression - and what can be done in local congregations."

Life's most rewarding work

In Hale's view, teaching at the college level is the best thing he could do as a profession. He never thought he would leave teaching, but he found that the work he did in Florida on medical-religious partnership and lay volunteer training was the most rewarding work of his life. His work here at Johns Hopkins involves establishing another program, which replicates REACH.

He already has 15 lay volunteers who will be trained in 10 weeks of classes starting in September. The lay training encompasses eight medical topics: heart disease, hypertension, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, prevention and disease management, depression and dementia; and three medical-related topics: medication management and vaccinations, advance directives and prevention of accidents and falls.

Once the course is completed, the lay volunteers will help in congregations and communities at large. In the spring, Hale plans to offer a session to train volunteers to be lay health advocates. These advocates would help patients who have no family or no family close by. These individuals provide a support system for the patient and offer practical help, as a family member might.

Hale believes that older adults can play a critical, life-saving role in health ministries. In this light, he mentioned Experience Corps, "a community-based senior volunteer program designed to support the academic success of children while also serving as a health promotion program for older adults." He said that Dr. Linda Fried, co-founder of Experience Corps, and members of the group, have a favorite quote, which they often use, "Older adults are our only increasing natural resource." Through Experience Corps, Americans older than 55 years of age tutor and mentor children in urban schools across the country. There are Experience Corps programs in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Washington.

The only thing on Hale's last conference slide was "Dr. Burton was right!" I was curious as to what this meant. He told me that it goes back to when he was consulting with Dr. Burton on whether or not to pursue the lay health educators training.

After nine hours of meeting with Burton in Florida, Burton told Hale and his associates that the idea was medically sound; it had not been done anywhere else; and that they had the resources to do it. Burton also added two additional comments. He said the group would work harder than they ever had; and that it would be the most gratifying work they had ever experienced. According to Hale, it is the most meaningful work he has ever done. So, Burton was right!