According to the 2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count administered by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there were 43,854 homeless individuals in Los Angeles. Of those individuals, 32,781 were recorded as unsheltered. As walking is the primary mode of transportation for this population, traveling great distances by foot to get from one homeless shelter to another is quite common. Often, an individual facing homelessness may walk over 10 miles a day, taxing their feet and health. UCLA Happy Feet Clinic unites students and medical professionals in hopes of addressing this community’s need by bringing podiatry services to the homeless. Undergraduate students team up with medical students, podiatrists, and physicians to offer much-needed foot care screenings, supplies, and educational materials.
As expected, coordinating a wide array of efforts and services requires significant funding and manpower. “Every clinic we host requires an extensive list of medical supplies, sanitation necessities, and foot-care items,” explained Internal Coordinator Margaret Huang. “Despite these challenges, Happy Feet leadership and volunteers continually rise up to the challenge and aim to make the most successful impact.”
Happy Feet Clinic has expanded to include five new shelter sites since 2014 and has provided resources to serve over 300 people annually. Through their foot care services, the organization connects with the homeless community and provides a vital service to this often-neglected population. Volunteers also gain valuable experiences and connections in their community by learning about health care disparities affecting Los Angeles.
“Our motivation stems from seeing firsthand the impact our clinics have,” said Manan Mehta, one of the Happy Feet coordinators, when asked to speak on their motivation. “It begins with foot washing, during which many patients begin to tell us their humbling story, reminding volunteers how privileged we are. More striking is their heartwarming smiles stemming from what is, for most, the first human interaction in a while.”
As the first point of contact for homeless individuals walking into the clinic, volunteers ensure that patients feel welcomed and comfortable. Student volunteers play a huge role in the organization by recording patient demographics and history, washing patients’ feet, and educating them about the importance of proper foot care. At their Pathways to Home clinic, a woman who was ashamed of the condition of her feet sat quietly alone at a corner and would not allow volunteers to wash them. However, compassionate volunteers like Margaret were able to connect with her and eventually cleanse her feet and give her a new pair of shoes. “Despite performing such simple acts, we had renewed her sense of confidence,” described Manan. “Unlike before, she was now socializing with the other women at the shelter, joking around and playing card games.”
Happy Feet Clinic is unique in that they focus on an often overlooked yet significant healthcare issue that affects a large population of Los Angeles. Although homelessness continues to be a concerning social issue, Happy Feet Clinic plays a significant role in supporting the wellbeing of homeless individuals. The volunteers take pride in the small things they are able to do to greatly improve the quality of life of those they serve. Since their inception in 2008 from the UCLA PRIME program, Happy Feet Clinic has evolved to be independently run by undergraduate students and remains strong in their engagement and impact in serving the homeless population.
The UCLA Volunteer Center Fellows are honored to award Happy Feet Clinic the Spring 2017 Mongelli Award for Excellence in Civic Engagement for their demonstrated community impact. To learn more about Happy Feet Clinic, check them out at their Facebook page or email the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.