By CHRISTINA SALERNO
A sprawling homeless shelter in downtown Oakland has no signs or markings to distinguish it, an attempt to protect its inhabitants’ privacy. Inside, the hallways twist like a maze leading to rooms that are similarly nondescript, except for one. A colorful sign hangs outside that room’s door: Kerry’s Kids.
Once a month, volunteer doctors arrive at this small room to treat homeless children at the shelter. A box of stuffed animals and children’s books is just outside the door. Inside, the room is set up like a typical pediatrician’s office.
Named in honor of a Rockridge pediatrician, Kerry Spooner Dean, who was killed in her kitchen in 1998 by a man hired to clean carpets, Kerry’s Kids is a nonprofit organization that provides free health care to homeless or underserved children. The mobile clinic visits five sites in Alameda County on a regular weekly schedule.
It is still going strong after ten years, adding two new sites within the last five months. That’s a testament to Spooner Dean, a woman who was “petite, loving, warm and heartwarming,” said Bob Savio, M.D., a volunteer who has been with the organization since its inception.
As Savio looked over charts at the homeless shelter on a recent evening, a small line formed outside the door, with children shrieking and laughing as they waited. On an average night, the clinic will see anywhere from five to nine patients. Since January, it has provided healthcare for roughly 250 children.
The first patient of Savio’s night was a little girl in need of a tuberculosis shot so she could enroll in Head Start, the early-education program for low-income families, which requires children to meet certain health requirements. Savio chatted with the girl’s mother, who is pregnant, about her prenatal care while performing a routine exam that included listening to the girl’s lungs and checking her ears. Dressed in a pink jumpsuit, the girl was distracted throughout the exam by a book about furry baby animals – until the needle arrived.
As her cries faded, a two-year-old boy ran into the clinic room at full speed, his mother trying to keep up. Despite his high energy, he was still recovering from a case of the chicken pox. There had been a recent outbreak of chicken pox at the homeless shelter among about eight children, a situation not uncommon in homeless shelters, Savio said, especially when other children may not have access to vaccinations.
Homeless children are at higher risk for a number of health problems, such as frequent infections, asthma and common illnesses like the flu, said Kerry’s Kids Medical Director Christine Ma, M.D. They are less likely to have vaccinations that are up-to-date, and are more likely to use emergency rooms for healthcare. In addition, the children are less likely to eat nutritional meals, she said, and can have developmental problems like delays in speech, or mental-health issues like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
“From a primary care standpoint, they tend to not have access to preventative care on a regular basis,” Ma said. The aim of Kerry’s Kids is to bring the healthcare directly to the children themselves, Ma said.
The clinic sets up for about two hours in the evening, when families have a few minutes of free time. Often, a volunteer will make an announcement in the dining hall during dinner to remind people that the doctors have arrived. “The families are really going through a lot,” Ma said. “They have a lot to do during their day, and that includes things like looking for housing, food, a job and getting kids in school. Healthcare can fall to the wayside, and it can be hard to get kids to the doctor, especially if you are moving around.”
The mother of the little boy with chicken pox said she has lived at the shelter since January. She has two older children, and they have all seen doctors through Kerry’s Kids over the past couple of years. “The doctors are great,” she said. “They dedicate their time and energy to us.”
The parents do not have to pay anything for the medical services, or deal with insurance. The medical supplies are paid for through donations from individuals and company sponsors, and all of the doctors are volunteers. A partnership with Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless provides a mobile health van.
Spooner Dean was only 30, and had just begun organizing free healthcare for homeless children for Head Start in Oakland, when she was killed. “She recognized the disparity in healthcare, and went right to work on that,” Savio said.
Savio was a colleague of Spooner Dean at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, where she completed her residency. He was working in the emergency room, listening to the radio, the night it was announced that a pediatrician had been killed in Oakland. The room went silent. A few hours later, the news confirmed that it was Spooner Dean.
After her death, Savio and his colleagues knew they wanted to continue her efforts. “We started having grassroots meetings in living rooms to talk about how to carry out her dream,” he said. That led to the formation of Kerry’s Kids, and a continuing dedication to provide medical services to children in need.
“This commitment is about not letting her passion die,” Savio said.
For more information or to donate to Kerry’s Kids, go to www.kerryskids.org.