After years of working in war-torn nations overseas, the International Medical Corps is turning its attention to America's inner cities.
What it has found are communities faced with problems not so different from those in developing countries: high infant-mortality rates, an extremely low ratio of residents to physicians and high poverty rates.
"Going from Somalia to South-Central (Los Angeles) is a tremendous transition but it's one whose time has arrived," said Don Duren, coordinator of the domestic program. "We hope to be just as effective in addressing the needs of the inner city as we have been in other countries."
In some parts of South-Central Los Angeles, there are 3,655 residents per physician, Duren said. Areas with 1,967 residents or more per physician are considered medically underserved.
The aim of the domestic program that began last month is to train South-Central residents to become certified nurse's assistants. They will then provide health care in their own medically underserved communities.
IMC will work with organizations such as the Health Coalition at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Kedren Community Center in Watts to recruit the residents, to be trained at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood.
IMC decided to start a domestic arm of its program years ago, after "we took a hard look at the data," said Nancy A. Aossey, executive director and president. "It's our way of giving something back to this country and bringing the expertise we've learned overseas back home."
In projects overseas, "we talk to the village elders" to find out what the problems and needs are, Aossey said.
"We did that here, too," she said. "We talked to the people who live in the community, people who see the problems every single day . . . and we took all this into consideration."
Another component of the model program is designed to lower the infant mortality rate.
"In Los Angeles for African-American babies the rate is higher than (in) some of the developing countries," Duren said.
A healthy-baby program, operated in conjunction with the Sacramento-based Birthing Project, will pair pregnant teen-agers with "sister-friends" who will guide them through the prenatal-care process and serve as role models. The young mothers-to-be will be encouraged to continue their education and will learn parenting and vocational skills, Duren said.
As with the program overseas, the philosophy behind the domestic program is to provide long-term solutions to problems using the skills and resources of local residents.
"Whether it's a village in Africa or a community in the U.S., the solution is always in the community," Aossey said. "We're just a mechanism to assist them in finding the answers."