Homeless Health Initiative: Sandy and Stephen Sheller's Story

Sandy Sheller Image For 25 years, the Homeless Health Initiative has been visiting West Philadelphia homeless shelters, providing monthly check-ups for children living there. But for newborns, that wasn’t enough.

To meet the unique needs of infants and new mothers — and in response to a request from Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing — the Homeless Health Initiative (HHI) piloted the Healthy Baby Project in 2012. A nurse visited one shelter every week to weigh and check the babies 0 to 4 months, and just as importantly, to support the mothers.


“All babies are vulnerable during the newborn period, and babies living in shelters are potentially at an even greater risk of getting sick or experiencing poor weight gain,” says Sally Poliwoda, BSN, RN, who led the pilot as director of CHOP’s Community Nursing Advocacy Fellowship program. “The visits allowed moms to ask questions about their newborns and talk about any concerns they were having. Our goal is to make sure the babies get off to a great start and moms have the tools they need to make that happen.”

Now, Sandy and Stephen Sheller, through the Sheller Family Foundation, have stepped up to bring this important program into the next phase. They are funding a part-time CHOP nurse for the Healthy Baby Project.

Dagmar Keenan, NNP, a CHOP nurse with extensive newborn experience, will visit three West Philadelphia shelters. Keenan will also collaborate with the Philadelphia Public Health Management Corporation to help it carry out its mandate to provide healthcare for those experiencing homelessness.

Supporting HHI and shelter staff

Sheller was happy to support HHI. She has seen the impact creative, specialized programming can have on families living in shelters: she previously worked as a certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor with families for seven years at the Salvation Army/Red Shield Family Residence in Philadelphia.

“When you get to know the mothers, you see their resilience and tenacity in the face of adversity and you have to respect them for that,” Sheller says. “I see a lot of hope. With the right support, they leave the shelters as stronger families.”

It was through her work at Red Shield that Sheller first became aware of HHI. She initially had the opportunity to team up with HHI program director Karen Hudson, MSW, LSW, to create a unique parenting curriculum geared specifically for families in emergency housing facilities.

The result was the Family Care Curriculum, a six-week program that is sustainable through a train-the-trainer model.

Helping parents nurture their children

Since 2009, Sheller and Hudson have held training workshops for those working directly with vulnerable families — shelter staff and case managers — who learn how to conduct sessions for parents. To date, more than 100 homeless service providers from more than 25 different emergency and transitional housing settings have been trained. For the past two years, a number of these agencies have been championing Family Care Curriculum’s success.

“Under stress, parents can’t always look at the big picture; it’s all about the emotion of the moment,” Sheller explains. “We help parents look at parenting through the lens of culture and attachment: What does my child need? What am I feeling? What do I need? What cultural baggage am I bringing to my parenting? How can I focus on and accomplish my long-term goals for raising my children?

"We teach them that they are the safe haven and, first and most, important teachers for their children," she adds. "While it’s important to discipline, they still must create a secure and nurturing place for their children.”

Parents also need the support of emergency and transitional shelters to serve as a “village” and to help them learn how to create their own villages outside of a shelter and for their future.

At its core, Family Care teaches parents to be mindful of their actions and reactions.

“We show that they need to take care of themselves so they can take care of their children,” Sheller says.

“Then, when you’re under stress — not if, but when — you can clearly see what you’re feeling and learn to override the emotions of the moment to still meet your children’s developmental needs for nurture and care.”

Philanthropy helps to build on success

After developing this fruitful long-lasting relationship, Hudson invited Sheller to attend an HHI quarterly stakeholder meeting. It was there, that Sheller learned the full extent of HHI’s mission. From that moment forward, Sheller and her husband, Stephen, wanted to also support HHI through the Sheller Family Foundation and their philanthropic efforts.

“I began to understand HHI’s commitment to changing the lives of families through its health and wellness programming. It fit into my belief of holistic care,” Sheller says. “There was a sense of respecting everyone and leveling the playing field for those experiencing homelessness. Creating equal opportunities is a value our foundation strives to support.”

Originally posted: May 2013