Josie Naron thought she wanted to be a doctor. But after volunteering at the local health department for the past year, she feels like she's found her true calling: in public health.
And she's only 16.
Through her work at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, the Free State High School junior has seen firsthand the difference she can make in the community. She recently began work on a project to determine the effectiveness of public transportation for low-income patients.
Her efforts haven't gone unnoticed. The department last week presented her with the first-ever Douglas County Youth Health Champion award.
"I've been really impressed with her dedication, her passion about trying to help her community," said Clinic Services Director Kim Ens, who nominated Naron for the award. "I think someday we're going to hear her name, and she's going to do something great in her future."
Naron has long wanted to work in the medical field. She's not exactly sure why — her father is a lawyer, her mom a writer — she's just sure it's what she wants to do.
She was looking for a volunteering opportunity around this time last year when she emailed the health department. This surprised Ens. Young people are rarely interested in the field of community health, and high-schoolers don't normally volunteer there.
"They didn't know what to do with me at first," Naron admitted.
In the beginning, she helped with office work, did statistical analysis and made graphs for presentations. But for someone with Naron's drive, it wasn't enough.
"I really wanted to do something I felt could have an impact," she said.
After meeting several patients, she wondered what challenges people without cars faced in getting to their appointments. She pitched the project, and the department trusted her enough to let her pursue it. She has since tagged along with patients as they travel to 200 Maine St.
"You don't have a face to put to problems until you go out and observe," she said.
Though her research is still in the early stages, she's already identified a few transportation barriers: the distance between bus stops, the cost of bus fares.
Naron goes above and beyond in the classroom as well. She did a project for National History Day last year on the creation of New York's first medical examiner's office that qualified her for the finals in College Park, Md. She also takes advanced psychology courses, participates in debate, and has been nominated for both student of the week and student of the month.
"She's just one of those students that everyone enjoys having in class. You can give her something and know that she'll follow through," said Teena Johnson, gifted adviser at Free State High School. "She's curious. She likes to find answers and solutions. She's not afraid to ask questions. She's pretty much a go-getter."
Naron has already started applying to public-health programs around the country, with a goal of attending Johns Hopkins University, where she did a summer course last year on epidemiology. She calls the "spirit of innovation" at its Bloomberg School of Public Health "mind-blowing." She hopes to one day be a field researcher, finding out how to better serve the clients who so rely on publicly run health care.
Volunteering at the health department has opened Naron's eyes to the immense need for community-health services. It made her realize she could make more of a difference to more people as a public-health professional.
"I definitely feel more attached to the community because of my work there," she said.