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Pierre Rowen photo

“Clients facing the greatest numbers of barriers to employment also appeared to be the most motivated to find work,” Rowen says.

Pierre Rowen’s commitment to helping people with disabilities achieve independence is deeply personal: he had to re-learn how to read, speak, and shower after surviving not one, but two brain tumors.

“My second brain tumor was so large that it occupied one-third of my head, and I was at very high risk for a stroke,” Rowen says. “During my subsequent rehabilitation, I traveled the unforgettable journey from wheelchair, to walker, to cane—to standing on my head in yoga!”

Rowen learned to embrace what he calls his “new normal”—but his employer at the time felt that he would be too disabled to return to work.

It’s safe to say Rowen proved that employer wrong: thirty years later, he is a Schweitzer Fellow and a graduate health administration and policy student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Drawing on his own experience, he is working to provide job-readiness, training, and placement services to low-income people who are living with disabilities.

ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

PR: In the wake of my experience, I developed strength, resilience, and a determination to help others and bring greater meaning to my life.  These sources of strength and resilience are inherent in all of us.

I initially intended for my Schweitzer project to provide job readiness, job training, and job placement services for veterans with disabilities, particularly those who sustained traumatic brain injuries and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One recent study stated that over 41 percent of this population is unemployed—which is unfortunate, because many are able to work—if only on a part-time basis—provided they receive training on the proper assistive technologies and psychosocial rehabilitation.

Ultimately, I ended up launching my project at Care for Real, a local food and clothing pantry in Edgewater that is affiliated with the greater Chicago Food Depository. Food insecurity and unemployment are intrinsically linked—and carrying out my project alongside the dedicated staffers at Care for Real (including my Schweitzer mentor, Tom Robb) offered me an opportunity to be part of the solution for both problems. Click here to watch a recent CBS Evening News report on the uptick of clients at Care for Real and other food pantries.

My project, Putting Edgewater to Work (PEW), provides job readiness and placement services for unemployed refugees, people experiencing homelessness, veterans, and other members of the public. Some PEW clients have limited educational credentials, while others are seasoned professionals with advanced degrees. I would like to play a role in helping them unleash their hidden potential and achieve their fullest potential.

ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

PR: I hope that PEW will become more visible in the community and attract more clients. In addition, I would like to see PEW assume a leadership role in collaborating with other local organizations that provide similar services but target different populations.

I also envision the agency forming a consortium of organizations that work synergistically to help residents secure employment. For example, we often work with clients who have mental health challenges, who might be better served at Thresholds, which offers an employment program that targets veterans and persons with mental health problems. Through collaboration with local agencies, I hope to achieve more defined roles for these local organizations, both to reduce redundancy and to increase community capacity.

PEW is volunteer-driven and is comprised of individuals who have other part-time or full-time commitments. Sustainability within this context requires ongoing volunteer recruitment and training. The case manager on staff at Care for Real has agreed to oversee volunteer coordination.

In addition, we are moving our weekly job club meeting from Thursday evenings to Saturday afternoons, which was determined to be a more convenient time for clients and volunteers alike. The Alderman for the ward where Care for Real is located will include this information in his weekly email updates to the community. This change in meeting time is critical to ensuring that the program has the capacity to sustain itself over the long-term.

ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

PR: I think the most pressing health-related issue of our time is the runaway growth of providing health care and the current lack of coordination of care. Health care costs have increased over recent years due in large part to a lack of focus on prevention, until just recently. It may take time to determine the return on investment from the new focus on prevention. The lack of medical homes often translates into lack of coordination of care or duplication of costly services.

The Affordable Care Act may provide a partial solution by allowing more people to access  affordable care, and helping to detect many chronic illnesses earlier, when they are easier and less costly to manage. In addition, pay-for-performance initiatives will reward providers to do the right things and become more accountable for the care they deliver.

In an age of consumer empowerment in health care, there is also a need to invest in online applications that provide consumers with greater transparency with respect to provider quality and the cost of care so that patients can make informed decisions.

A more challenging issue is how to address end-of-life care—which currently accounts for approximately 30 percent of health care costs—without resorting to so-called “death panels.”  These issues need to be addressed as the population begins to age. Leaders in the industry will need to strike a delicate balance between providing care to those who paid into the system their entire lives, and restricting care that most deem to be ineffective in terminal cases.

ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

PR: The most surprising element was the fact that clients facing the greatest numbers of barriers to employment also appeared to be the most motivated to find work.

I was particularly inspired by one client who is homeless, has no computer, has no access to a vehicle, no money to use public transportation, and has a criminal record. He had to walk two miles each way to reach Care for Real. Yet he consistently arrived 15 minutes early for his appointments and contacted me daily for work opportunities. He arrived at our first appointment with a flash drive containing his resume and cover letter. Together, we identified goals and took action to achieve them. Working in partnership with other organizations, he was able to expunge his criminal record, attend job fairs, evaluate housing options, and obtain assistance to prepare for an interview with the Chicago Transit Authority.

ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?

PR: It means being part of a community of like-minded people who are dedicated to addressing various aspects of health care disparities. The Fellows are passionate and committed to making a difference in the world and helping the most vulnerable communities thrive in their environments.

Being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life also means that I belong to a community of health care professionals from all walks of life who are dedicated to effecting change, assisting individuals, and helping to revitalize communities.

Click here to learn more about the Chicago Schweitzer Fellows Program, a program of The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and Health and Medicine Policy Research Group. The Chicago Schweitzer Fellows Program’s work to improve health, develop leaders, and create change is supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.