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UNC's Hearts for the Homeless is helping Orange County's most vulnerable amid pandemic

hearts for homeless
Maureen Whittelsey, director of Chapel Hill's Hearts for the Homeless’ chapter, stands with soap kits the group produces. Photo courtesy of Kayla Ferro

Hearts for the Homeless, a nonprofit started to assist people experiencing homelessness, recently established a UNC chapter to help serve the community.

The chapter was established in November 2019 by Kayla Ferro, who is the treasurer for the international Hearts for the Homeless organization and a master’s student at the Gillings School of Public Health. Ferro is the co-founder and president of the UNC chapter.

“We contribute to the health and well-being of the homeless through preventative health screenings and education,” Ferro said. “And we do this by pairing with the local food shelters, homeless shelters or the food shares where, in the community, they offer dinner every night. We partner with them location-wise, then we go and offer blood pressure screenings, then we connect them to other community resources.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hearts for the Homeless is unable to perform direct service, but the pandemic hasn’t kept the organization from helping those struggling with homelessness during this time, Ferro said.

“Internationally, we designed a prototype initially for a hand-washing sink station, and we implemented that at UCF and at Florida State University, and those have been pretty successful," Maureen Whittelsey, the chapter's director, said. "We’re trying to find the best location and way to implement it here in Chapel Hill, so that’s in the works now.” 

Hearts for the Homeless was started by three biomedical sciences students at the University of Central Florida, where Ferro was an undergraduate. She said as she got more involved, she helped establish it as a nonprofit and expand the organization out of Florida.

“Then I moved here to Chapel Hill to start my master’s of public health graduate program, and I wanted to start a chapter here in Chapel Hill,” Ferro said.

The Chapel Hill chapter is quickly becoming one of the largest chapters nationwide with more than 100 members, she said.

“There’s so many students at UNC who really want to get involved and find ways that they can get some kind of pre-health experience,” RuthAnne Winston, the chapter's community outreach officer, said.

Ferro said Hearts for the Homeless partners with other local organizations that assist those experiencing homelessness, such as the Inter-Faith Council and the UNC Student Health Action Coalition, and she said they're exploring a partnership with the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.

“We’re just getting connected with Hearts for the Homeless, and we’re really excited at their interest to help people,” Corey Root, OCPEH programs coordinator, said.

Ferro said Hearts for the Homeless Chapel Hill is accepting donations of materials to make homemade masks for the Inter-Faith Council, which is still serving meals to those in need.

She also said the chapter is accepting donations of hand sanitizer, soap, gloves, scarves, bandanas and homemade masks. Monetary donations can also be given through the international Hearts for the Homeless website.

She emphasized that people should not forget those struggling with homelessness during this turbulent time in the country.

“We have these stay-at-home orders, but a lot of these people, they don’t have a safe home to quarantine in,” Ferro said. “They are out on the street, they’re going through the same stresses and uncertainties that we are, but they don’t have that stable home.” 

@DTHCityState |

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