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Zurich project offers safety net to vulnerable

Salute aims to help people who slip through the cracks of social services

(Helga Lade)

A new project in Zurich is helping bring people with health and social problems back on track.

The city of Zurich and the Swiss Red Cross are working with qualified volunteers on the “Salute” project, aimed at improving the existing public health sector services.

Zurich is Switzerland’s financial and innovative centre. Yet constant pressure to perform in the workplace can have a negative influence on a person’s life outside the workforce – particularly in the areas of emotional and physical wellbeing.

In November 2009, 19 organisations within Zurich’s public health sector founded “Gesundheitsnetz [Health network] 2025”. It includes hospitals, health insurance companies, doctors’ associations, home care, pharmacists and others. The association wants to serve as a think-tank and central platform encouraging cooperation between everyone involved.

It also hopes to make primary health care more sustainable and patient-friendly.

The idea is that health networks can help break down barriers separating the players within the public health sector.

100 days of health

The “Salute” project has been underway for 100 days now. The Swiss Red Cross (SRK) and the city’s doctor service supports clients with social problems – for example, those referred by general practitioners.

SRK volunteers then help people in need to conquer everyday challenges; they step in and fill gaps in the patient’s social circle.

As “Salute” project leader and coordinator Urs Baumeler told, plenty of people have come forward to serve as volunteers.

“With ‘Salute’ we influence social factors that can endanger human health; at the same time, we make it possible for volunteers to get involved in challenging work,” said Baumeler.

Up to 30 mentors

Sociologist Kirsti Rychener is one of the project’s volunteers.

“I want to give something back from my privileged living situation. I’m well-educated, have a nice home and strong nerves,” Rychener told

At the moment she’s looking after two former drug addicts.

“One has psychological problems and poor health, as well as financial problems. The other client is in a better position, he managed to complete the school leaving examination and started a course of studies,” said Rychener.

The work seems to appeal in particular to women from the social service and medical fields. With one exception, all of the volunteer mentors are female.

“In the medium term we plan to enlarge the mentor pool to include as many as 30 people,” said Baumeler.

The annual “Salute” budget is about SFr160,000 ($139,800); it covers rent and educational costs. At the moment, the project engages 11 trained volunteers. They make house calls, primarily.

“We jump in where gaps in the social circle endanger patients’ social wellbeing,” said Baumeler.

The priority is people who might slip through the cracks of social services. Immigrants often fall into this category – especially if their families are far away or unable to cope with the situation.

Concrete solutions

The project’s value is evidenced by specific examples of its work. In one case, an older married couple had financial trouble and were ashamed to seek the aid of strangers. The wife’s recent operation made things worse.

A hospital nurse became aware of the problem and alerted “Salute”. Soon after, an SRK mentor visited the couple at home and persuaded them to accept help.

The volunteer then connected the couple with an agency that looked into their situation more closely. The agency helped the couple find a less-expensive apartment on ground-level; this was a big relief as the wife had been struggling with stairs.

Urs Baumler is convinced that “Salute” project is a success for everyone involved.

“The offer supports patients as well as health sector professionals.”

Erwin Dettling in Winterthur, (Adapted from German by Susan Vogel-Misicka)

Key facts

Who’s it for?
The project is geared toward Zurich residents who have psycho-social problems but too little support within their own social circles. Many are referred by a general practitioner.

What do the mentors do?
The 11 project volunteers, who have been educated by the canton Zurich branch of the Swiss Red Cross, assist the clients with everyday problems.

They also help them get in touch with other aid organisations.

How does it work?
Doctors’ offices and other institutions refer the patients to “Salute”.

A specialist decides whether the patient can be helped by the project or perhaps another organisation.

Volunteers accompany the patients to appointments, help them do paperwork and give advice as needed.

The patients receive up to 10 free sessions.

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