Interns learn from rougher lives
November 30, 2011 |  by Bret McCabe

The corner of Baltimore and Gay streets in downtown Baltimore offers a curious slice of urban life. The 10-story Baltimore Police Department headquarters intimidates the intersection from the northeast corner. On the street’s south side a small pawnshop offers to buy “anything of value.” To the west slinks what remains of Baltimore’s red-light district—a once thriving bustle of burlesque houses, now a single stretch of strip clubs and adult bookstores. Locally infamous simply as “The Block” and popularly considered a haven for prostitution, drugs, and unseemly behavior of all stripes, it’s where Johns Hopkins University undergraduate Anita Ram spent some of her summer vacation. “That was my favorite part,” Ram says. The senior public health major spent time on The Block through the Baltimore City Health Department’s Needle Exchange Program, which was Ram’s placement organization in the inaugural eight-week paid summer internship coordinated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Concern.

The Johns Hopkins Community Impact Internships program (CIIP) pairs undergraduates with local, social service nonprofit, and government agencies. The students’ time is paid for by an anonymous gift that funded 25 interns in 2011 and will fund 50 per year thereafter.

Abby Neyenhouse, the Center for Social Concern’s summer internship coordinator, recruited the local organizations, seeking those that could work with students on directed projects. The goal is to give students practical experience in the social services industry.

Ram relished that embedded situation. “Thursday nights, we went to The Block—I don’t know if you’ve heard of The Block,” she says conspiratorially. “A lot of the dancers, they came, and we would give them condoms and exchange needles. We partner with a community organization called STAR—that stands for Sisters Together And Reaching—and they do most of the reproductive health services. So we also test for STDs. We give out birth control and test for HPV and certain other reproductive health issues and things like that.”

Raised mostly in Baltimore’s suburbs, Ram admits she didn’t know much about the city and its attendant issues growing up. During her freshman year she participated in research studying the cognitive function of heroin addicts at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. That was her first encounter with drug addiction. This summer, she gathered and tracked data about HIV and syphilis rates among the needle exchange clients and interviewed them about drug use and interactions with local law enforcement. The goal of the program is to reduce harm, especially transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.

To that end, Ram prepped and passed out harm reduction kits. “You’ve got these cookers and cotton, which you use to soak up the drug,” she rattles off, opening up the kit—a common plastic bag—to rifle through its contents. “And you’ve got alcohol preps. And we require that they bring their dirty syringes bundled up in fives so we can count them easily, so we give them rubber bands. And we give them bleach to clean the needles if by any chance they do need to reuse them for themselves. And distilled water, too.”

Ram was attracted to CIIP for the field experience, but it proved to be more than a summer job. “When I first started, it was like, I’m not used to this,” Ram says. “I’m clearly out of my element. [But] I was learning how to interact with people of different backgrounds. And just being in a different environment than what I’m normally used to and what I’m comfortable with is a very eye-opening experience. I loved it.” Other CIIP interns were partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to work on education reform, the Greater Homewood Community Corporation to create internal databases, and the Baltimore City Health Department’s Carrera “Mi Espacio” Program, working with immigrant youth.

Danielle Lohan, a junior public health studies major, worked with The Samaritan Women, a faith-based nonprofit that helps women, and learned far more than she ever expected about human trafficking. Lohan compiled a large database of shelters for sexually exploited women and also participated in Sunday outreach excursions, where the organization consulted with at-risk women in southwest Baltimore. During these outreach missions, Lohan confronted the socioeconomic divide that separates young women in the same city. She recalls thinking, “I’m in my safe little Johns Hopkins bubble and you’re over there with your hypodermic needles in the streets.” Lohan confessed that she didn’t know anything about human trafficking before she went to Samaritan Women. Jeanne Allert, its director, passed her reams of information that Lohan devoured during the internship’s first week. “I can definitely see myself continuing along the lines of [working with] human trafficking,” she says. “I got credit to do an independent study with them for next semester. So I’m going to be there next semester and if I can wrangle it I’ll be there for the spring as well. This is probably going to be my only volunteer activity from now on.”