As a pediatrician with Rush Copley Medical Group, Jennifer Kleinfeld, MD, focuses on partnering with families to raise healthy, happy children.
She brings that same goal to her role as the volunteer medical director at Mooseheart, a residential child care facility for children and teens whose families are unable to care for them.
Children at Mooseheart, established in 1913 by the Moose fraternal organization, live with five to 10 other children in residences that are designed like single-family homes and run like a family unit. They attend school on the 1,000-acre campus — Mooseheart has its own accredited school, which is recognized by the Illinois State Board for Education for pre-K through 12th grade. In addition to academics, the organization focuses on helping children develop the social skills they will need to be successful later in life.
“It’s a great community,” says Kleinfeld. “The kids know there are people who care. If they have a problem, we’re going to address it.”
Providing care and more
In her role as medical director, Kleinfeld leads health-related educational programs for the teachers, speaks about health topics at school assemblies, and works with the Mooseheart nurse to maintain health policies and protocols and to manage medical issues and referrals. During the pandemic, she has worked with administrative staff on procedures and safety measures to protect the children.
“Dr. Kleinfeld spends countless hours working with us to provide for the health, well-being and safety of our students,” says Gary Urwiler, executive director of Mooseheart. “She is always very responsive to our needs. It is a huge blessing that we can lean on her expertise and knowledge.”
Kleinfeld got involved with Mooseheart 15 years ago when she joined the medical group that provides primary care to the kids there.
“Dr. Kleinfeld and the pediatricians in her group provide exceptional care for our children,” Urwiler says. “Through their knowledge, education, recommendations and referrals, they go above and beyond for our students. They have great hearts.”
Urwiler notes that the providers build a good rapport with the kids, which helps the students trust and respect them. This also allows the children to feel more comfortable asking questions and sharing their health histories.
Learning to make life work
Although much of Kleinfeld’s work takes place behind the scenes, she is also a face on campus that the kids and staff know. When meeting students who are new to Mooseheart, she assures them, “If you’re ever feeling sick or worried, we’ll get it taken care of. I’ve got your back.”
She hopes to teach them that no matter what struggles come, you can keep going.
She knows this from experience. When she was 13, medical issues had her questioning whether she would ever be able to walk and if she would have to give up her dream of becoming a doctor.
“A great orthopedic doctor told me, ‘It doesn’t matter — you can be a doctor in a wheelchair.’ That turned my thinking around,” she says.
Ultimately, she recovered and was able to walk and attend medical school.
Recently, however, she faced medical issues again and now is in a wheelchair most of the time. But she hasn’t let it stop her. She says, “I am living my life, doing the things I used to do, just modified.
“I want to show the kids that you can overcome anything,” she says.
Whether they have asthma or a heart issue, she stresses to the kids that they can make life work — they may just need to make some adjustments. And she and the Mooseheart staff are there to help them figure it out.
An opportunity to change lives
Knowing the challenges that many of these kids have faced — medical issues, abuse, loss of a parent, difficult home environments — she says it’s great to see how they thrive with support. And she says Moose International does a great job of supporting them, whether the kids stay a year or until they graduate. When kids leave Mooseheart, some go on to college with scholarships provided by Moose International. Others learn vocations to work in the automotive, cosmetology or business industries.
“Mooseheart prepares them for the world,” Kleinfeld says. “The students are nurtured and prepared.”
Kleinfeld’s favorite thing about volunteering is connecting with the kids, through school assemblies, health talks or one-on-one conversations.
“Sometimes they see me and ask a question,” she says. “If I give an appropriate answer, I have taught them something. And they’ve learned that it’s OK to ask. Every small interaction can be an opportunity to change their lives for the better.”
Helping kids to grow
“It’s exciting to see them grow up and to know that I’ve helped them to that point,” Kleinfeld says. “We’ve addressed the medical issues that are barriers to their success, and we’ve encouraged them.”
Kleinfeld believes her work at Mooseheart has also made her a better doctor. “I’ve learned to grow and challenge myself and to be confident in my knowledge and skill,” she says. “I’ve learned that I can tackle whatever comes.”