Dr. Elliot Shin, founder and president of Operation H.O.P.E., center, goes over a patient’s case file with nurse practitioner Rodelyn Abario, left, as pre-med student Boniface Njoroge, second from left, and nurse Cyndee Combs keep busy in the background at organization’s office. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
Elliot Shin remembers the exact moment he discovered his calling. It came in the form of a kiss.
Shin was a college student at Rutgers University in New Jersey when a group of Christian friends asked him to lend a hand at their charity event. For weeks, they saved points from their dining-hall meal plans to cash in for food to give to the homeless. They fasted and abstained from showering to gain an understanding of the challenges the recipients of their boxed lunches faced.
At that time, Shin had never interacted with homeless people. They frightened him. In his eyes, they were “bums and losers, alcoholics and mentally ill.” Although he was nervous, he committed to the project.
When the day came, Shin and his friends traveled to New York City. They arrived, arms piled high will donations, and made their way from the bus station to the distribution point. On his way there, Shin passed a homeless woman sitting leaning against a wall outside the bus terminal.
He had walked for blocks before something told him to go back. Realizing she was the kind of person he was there to help, Shin returned and offered the woman food.
She accepted, smiled and thanked him with a kiss.
“From that holy kiss from that blessed woman, my life changed,” Shin says, touching his cheek as he remembers. “I was ordained from that moment to help the homeless.”
Fast forward 20-something years, and Shin, now a medical doctor, runs Operation H.O.P.E., a clinic that serves uninsured, low-income patients, most often homeless or recently unemployed. The volunteer-run clinic operates two half-days each week — Monday mornings and Wednesday afternoons — and treats everything from the common cold to diabetes to cancer. In the two years since it opened, Operation H.O.P.E. and its dozens of doctors, nurses and patient-advocacy volunteers have helped more than 3,500 patients at a dollar value of more than $500,000. The clinic is funded by private donors, and helped by free rent, utilities and malpractice insurance, provided by the City Impact Foundation on East Sahara Avenue, which also houses a number of other charitable programs.
Operation H.O.P.E. doesn’t accept traditional payment, but it does require patients to pay it forward — with three good deeds in three months.
The idea was suggested by a colleague of Shin’s and was inspired by the decade-old movie Pay It Forward, set in Las Vegas.
Shin liked the idea, although he has yet to see the movie. The program, he says, encourages patients to be active in their recoveries, and not seek a free ride.
“We are not here to give away free stuff,” Shin explains. “We don’t want to perpetuate the welfare mentality.”
Shin believes the deeds help patients exercise their natural gifts and talents and build self-esteem and self-sufficiency.
There’s another reason patients should participate: If they haven’t completed one good deed by the time of their follow-up appointment, they won’t be seen.
Letters telling stories of good deeds are posted on the wall at Operation H.O.P.E. Some baby-sit, grocery-shop for elderly neighbors or clean up schools. One girl quit getting high on prescription pills to please her mother. Another woman stopped at the scene of an accident and performed CPR on someone who may have died otherwise. She told Shin she wouldn’t have stopped if not for the clinic’s pay-it-forward program.
Operation H.O.P.E. is compiling a book of the letters chronicling the good deeds it has inspired. The book will be organized according to its seven tenets, which stress equality, kindness and generosity.
Additionally, there will be an eighth chapter, dedicated to a place where an inordinate number of these good deeds happen: “Walmart,” Shin says, shrugging.
Patient honestly is important to the clinic’s operation, but Shin believes most are honest about their good deeds and their qualifications for care (no insurance, income less than two times the national poverty level), though the system has seen some abuse. Operation H.O.P.E. used to offer walk-in dental services, but the doctors felt people with money were taking advantage of the program to save on costly procedures, so they limited the program to the homeless only. Shin and his colleagues are working on opening a specialty clinic across the street to offer ophthalmology, podiatry and dental services.
Good deeds instead of dollars isn’t the only thing that sets Operation H.O.P.E. apart — it offers prayer.
Shin says the organization is not faith-based, and patients who decline prayer are treated no differently than patients who accept.
What it comes down to, he says, is compassion.
“Money and programs don’t change people,” Shin says. “Love changes people.”
As someone whose life was changed by a kiss, Shin knows this well.