(Happy Feet Clinic)
UCLA is home to a unique community service project called Happy Feet. While it shares its name with a well-known cartoon penguin, in reality it serves one of the most desperately needy populations in Los Angeles – the homeless. A homeless person typically spends as much as ten hours a day, or more, on his or her feet, walking an average of 13 miles, and the service provided by this program to the clients at their service sites can make an incalculable difference in the daily lives of the recipients.
The Happy Feet Clinic program was started by concerned UCLA students in 2010. Periodic clinics are held at a variety of homeless shelters in the Greater Los Angeles area, including downtown Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Riverside, and Santa Monica. These clinics represent a collaborative effort among UCLA undergraduates, students from the David Geffen School of Medicine, faculty members from the UCLA Podiatry Group, and additionally Western University podiatry students. The number of participants served during 2016 was estimated at 244.
Los Angeles has one of the largest street populations of homeless individuals in the nation. It is important to understand that, while homeless individuals have reasonably good access to general medical treatment, services involving ailments of the feet are not readily available. Studies have shown that many of the health issues impacting homeless individuals start with poor foot cleanliness, often because of shoes that fit poorly or, in a significant number of cases, because the individuals have no shoes. Resulting problems can lead to a wide variety of minor problems that may set the stage for much more serious conditions, including lower extremity ulcerations, neuropathy, and even amputations.
As noted above, the work involves a collaborative effort among undergraduates, medical students, and faculty, and the demands placed on student participants during each clinic session are intensive, in terms of both physical effort and emotional involvement. At the beginning of each clinic, a brief intake of health history is done, followed by foot washings performed by undergraduates, and exams administered by podiatrists/medical students. Podiatrists and medical students perform simple procedures, and medications in addition to referrals are provided on an as-needed basis. A UCLA advisor who works with Happy Feet observes, “Just the fact that the students deal with an issue that can be very unpleasant, washing feet, yet so important to this population in numerous ways, and that they handle it in a gentle, caring way, is a testament to their success.”
The washing and medical treatment are followed by an educational component through which the program attempts to ensure that proper foot care is implemented in the daily routines of patients. Subsequently, tennis shoes, shower shoes, clean socks, shampoo, conditioner, soaps, foot powder, and many more items are given to the homeless individuals within hygiene kits.
Perhaps equally as important to the recipients as the physical care is the emotional/relationship component afforded to each patient. Undergraduate participants note that returning patients look forward not only to the medical care that can be provided site, but to the social interaction that is available. One student participant shared the following: “After giving a man his shoes and asking how he liked the clinic, he began to dance a little jig, and grinning from ear to ear, he hugged me and told me, ‘I feel great, my feet feel great!’”
One of the co-founders of Happy Feet who received the Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award in 2011 for his role in the program’s development, shared the following observation: “By interacting with the homeless in the capacity that I have – getting to know their stories, their struggles, their pains, their joys – in the act of washing their feet, their broken, callused, and bruised feet, they have allowed me to understand them in ways otherwise impossible.”
For more information on the Happy Feet Clinic, go to http://www.uclahappyfeetclinic.org/