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Rebecca Elias Abboud/ University Communications

Credit: University of Pennsylvania-Unive

Nursing seniors Marcus Henderson and Ian McCurry want to transform the way Philadelphia’s homeless community receives health care.

The duo was recently awarded the 2017 President’s Engagement Prize, with $100,000 of funding for their project, “Homeless Health and Nursing: Building Community Partnerships for a Healthier Future.” Partnered with the Bethesda Project, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on reducing homelessness, their initiative aims to provide more community-oriented health care by proactively addressing health concerns before homeless individuals reach the emergency room.

McCurry said the initiative has a community-oriented approach centered on the role of the community health worker: people who emerge as natural caregivers within targeted communities. Many of these individuals have experienced homelessness or worked with the homeless — as a pastor or a clinic employee, for example — and recognize the shortcomings of the current health system.

The two seniors have been caretakers for most of their lives. When Henderson was in middle school, he would go home and take care of his great aunt with Down syndrome and his grandmother diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“When I was just 12 years old, I would go home take care of them instead of playing with my classmates after school,” he said. Henderson went on to study public health at Philadelphia’s Franklin Learning Center while in high school, and eventually joined Penn’s nursing program.

McCurry attributes his beginnings as a nurse to his mother, a veteran nurse.

“My entire life I have been raised by someone who taught me who to look at communities through a nursing lens,” McCurry said. As a teen, he helped adults with developmental disabilities, eventually working as a counselor for those adults. By the time college applications came around, nursing was the only thing he could see himself doing.

Since arriving at Penn, McCurry and Henderson have had their passion for nursing tested by a range of challenges. On top of a strenuous workload, nursing students have to confront the mortality of the hospital ward on a daily basis as part of their education, McCurry said.

“You can have a great day and save three lives or lose two,” he said.

As male nursing students, they also had to confront gender stereotypes.

“Male nurses have historically gone into military or administrative roles,” Henderson said. “But we are two male nurses going into the community and defying those stereotypes and breaking those barriers.”

After years of working in nursing, they had to boil all of their experience and passion down to roughly 800 words — crafted through more than 50 iterations of editing — in their proposal for the President’s Engagement Prize.

“To encompass the passion that we had for this project in such few words was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done,” McCurry said.

Then, on a Monday morning in March, the two received the good news — and years of planning became a reality.

“I think what’s most exciting about this is that Penn believes in the project,” Henderson said. “It’s an incredible affirmation of four years of working and studying to final have the phone call that says ‘Yes, we believe in you.’”