As Sarah Ceponis watched the unrest in Baltimore explode in April, her mind went to the underlying public health disparities inherent in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester.
Ceponis, studying for a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins, was taking a course on health and well-being in the urban core. She saw the unrest as a "window of opportunity" in which people were actually paying attention to public health issues — such as neighborhood access to pharmacies — that are often ignored.
"Conversations I'd been having for years suddenly came to light," she said, and she was eager to play a role in fostering those conversations in her adopted home.
That's when the "too good to be true" call came from Dr. Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner.
Wen had planned to bring on several fellows from Baltimore Corps, a nonprofit that connects individuals with organizations and agencies throughout the city for 16-month fellowships, in September. But after the riots, she decided to fast-track three positions, geared toward responding to the health needs brought on, exacerbated or highlighted by the unrest.
"What really came to light during the unrest was how much people need to be heard, need to be respected, and how much we need to address the underlying problems that lead to the violence and unrest," Wen said. "We can't talk about our future without talking about kids who are sick and unhealthy. If kids are hungry, they can't learn."
Ceponis, a 26-year-old student at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, had been working through the Baltimore Corps application process. So, too, had Kelleigh Eastman, 32, a recent Bloomberg graduate and community organizer, and Wes Williams, 23, a Virginia Tech graduate.
Wen chose all three, told them she was looking for people who "saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to something that is far bigger than them," and asked if they would be willing to start June 1.
All three agreed — despite the quick turnaround.
Williams said he got the offer just 10 days before the job started, and moved to Baltimore on the eve of his first day. He spent all last week with Ceponis and Eastman learning as much as possible about community groups and the health services being offered.
Williams, Ceponis and Eastman said what they do now depends on the feedback they receive at community health fairs and other forums in the next couple weeks.
"We want to be hearing from folks in all parts of the city," Williams said.
"Our tagline right now is, 'Listen first,'" Ceponis said. "A lot of the unrest came about because a lot of voices weren't being heard."
The fellows will receive a $2,700 monthly stipend. Wen said she is still working through how to cover all of the cost, but most of it has been offset by donations from an anonymous philanthropist, the de Beaumont Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Hospital and United Way.
Wen said the fellows will focus on three key areas: figuring out where care is needed most, and delivering it, scaling up existing health programs that have a proven track record, and bringing an understanding of the underlying health issues in many of Baltimore's communities — mental health, substance abuse, trauma — to the forefront of city and community programming.
"We know that trauma is a big problem even before the unrest happened," Wen said, "and we need to bring trauma-informed approaches to our care of our citizens."
She said the fellows will work as "connectors and amplifiers" for the city's existing health-oriented nonprofits and community organizations, finding out what their needs are and seeing if the city can help. They will also be on the lookout for funding sources at the federal level and from organizations outside Baltimore that the city could attract to improve health outcomes in the city.
"It's really going to depend on community needs," Eastman said.
"Before we reinvent the wheel, we want to make sure we are connecting people to those good things that are already going on," Ceponis said. "We want to make sure that we're present and engaged and in the community — and fast."