By Wyatt Massey, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service   Published May 11, 2015 at 4:46 PM

Girls run across the field at the Kinnickinnic River Parkway, their friends cheering them on in a relay race. The 12 girls, in third through fifth grade, take turns running to their coach, Elizabeth Kellom, who asks them a question that they must answer in writing before the next girl can race forward. Coaches Robert Olson and Leah Weipert cheer from the sidelines.

The girls belong to Girls on the Run, a program that builds self-esteem and positive thinking through exercise and healthy habits. The three coaches are volunteers at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and members of Community HealthCorps, a health-focused AmeriCorps program.

The Community HealthCorps was founded 20 years ago by the National Association of Community Health Centers. Currently 535 members serve at 36 partner organizations at more than 200 sites in 17 states.

Each year, a group of HealthCorps volunteers spend 11 months at Sixteenth Street, which served more than 36,000 people in 2014. The extra help ensures that patients receive the attention they need. Sixteenth Street has eight HealthCorps members now, and 89 have served there since 2001.

"AmeriCorps is just that extra piece," said Ellyn McKenzie, vice president of community relations at Sixteenth Street Community Health Center. "Their mission is to work with members of the community, and they really extend our reach."

HealthCorps volunteer Steven Hesse runs the Medication Assistance Program, which helps patients apply for free or discounted medicine. The process can be daunting, but Hesse is able to meet with patients multiple times and translate the applications from English to Spanish.

New HealthCorps members at the clinic learn about the community from Kate Jaeger, who directs the volunteer program at Sixteenth Street. She organizes orientations and community engagement events to help them get acclimated to Milwaukee. The AmeriCorps members promote education and treat patients, she said.

"The AmeriCorps volunteers can touch every patient who walks in the door with some kind of education," Jaeger said.

Eduardo Castro oversees the Healthy Choices Program, which is a 12-week class for families about the importance of exercise and healthy food choices. He started at Sixteenth Street as a summer intern and then returned through Community HealthCorps.

Coordinating the program gives Castro important insight into the field of public health, which he is interested in pursuing after his year in HealthCorps, he said. An important part of a volunteer’s time at Sixteenth Street involves learning about specific medical fields through conferences or online classes. 26 of the 89 HealthCorps members Sixteenth Street has hosted went on to medical school.

"They will come away with a perspective after 11 months that someone that went straight to medical school won’t have," Jaeger said.

Olson, who works in the Chronic Care Program, plans to pursue medical school. His experience in coaching Girls on the Run allows him to see the many forms community medicine can take.

"It’s excellent to get into a clinic and see what it looks like behind the scenes," Olson said.

Maggie Moore’s work in HealthCorps is helping her prepare for graduate school in counseling psychology. She teaches youth healthy recipes to build good eating habits in the Willow Project, 20-minute interactive workshops that are part of the Women, Infants, and Children program at Sixteenth Street.

The HealthCorps experience informed Jessica Richter’s decision to pursue a career as a family physician. She began volunteering at Sixteenth Street as an undergraduate at Marquette University before joining the clinic as a HealthCorps member in 2010. Now a fourth-year medical student at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, she credits the opportunity to shadow doctors and other practitioners for focusing her interest in community medicine.

"It was a great way to get real-world experience," Richter said. "I might even be back as a physician there. I could see myself at Sixteenth Street."