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Welcoming New Neighbors


Much of Karen Scheu’s life has been shaped by two loves: nursing and the Spanish language. Today she is a family nurse practitioner on the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. But her passion is serving immigrant neighbors through the Esperanza Center. In addition to being a longtime volunteer in its health clinic, Karen was instrumental in helping the center implement the innovative Volunteers in Medicine model for sustainable free health care. That makes Esperanza one of only 92 VIM clinics in the country. “For me, what drives this work always has been interacting with my patients,” she explained. “But now I’m also excited to show my students that there is work in health care outside the usual outpatient clinic or hospital, where the rewards include learning about another culture, learning so much more than just the diagnosis of the day.”

Recently, a medical student who had shadowed Karen at Esperanza Center contacted her to say the experience had inspired him to do family medicine rotations. “He wants to work in a community setting,” she shared. “Our patients and my colleagues showed him a new way. I love that!” Karen served Spanish-speaking patients while studying at Columbia University and when she lived in Camden, New Jersey. She found Esperanza after she moved to Baltimore. Her tenure as a volunteer at the center has been longer than that of any member of the clinic staff; Karen was recognized with the 2019 Sister Mary Neal award for outstanding volunteers. “My love for this population and my desire to help them came from experiencing the kindness of strangers on my own travels,” she reflected. “There’s something special about welcoming a stranger to your country, and hearing their stories.”

Hearing about the violence that led my patients to come here…I know I would do the same thing if I felt my children’s lives were at risk.” Racial and social inequities in health care are not new, but the pandemic has brought them into sharp focus. “At Esperanza, we’re always addressing those inequalities, but today our population is among those being hit the hardest by COVID-19,” Karen said. “They are the essential workers, driving busses, working in meat plants, and they often live in crowded conditions. But I am always astounded by the resilience of this population, and their close-knit sense of family. “They care for one another,” she went on. “There is something about what I’ve learned from them that makes me want to serve them, a desire to see humans be in a better place and a desire to help them get there.”