Alexandria, VA – Every Sunday when Dr. William Mazzella drove to church with his family, he noticed the homeless people on the streets along the way, a sad and disturbing sight. Mazzella couldn’t take it anymore and knew he had to do something. He felt a calling, a strong impulse to help that he just couldn’t ignore.
It wasn’t the first time in his life he’d felt so compelled. As a pre-teen boy, he’d go with his mother on her volunteer rounds to neighborhood nursing homes. One day he met a man who had suffered a debilitating stroke that badly affected his speech. This man was trying to communicate something to his nurse, but he couldn’t form the words and eventually burst into tears of frustration and despair, leaving an indelible impression on young Mazzella. He went home and wrote a program on his computer that would enable stroke patients to communicate with a keyboard.
“I’ve often thought about that man,” Mazzella said. “I think he was grateful to know that some kid thought enough about him to create a program to solve his problem.” Indeed, that level of respect, compassion, and care for his fellow man would inform Mazzella through his education and subsequent vocation.
In November 2019, Mazzella realized the answer to his calling and launched MedStreet, a nonprofit with a mission to administer medical care to the homeless in Alexandria. In the pre-COVID-19 days, Mazzella and his wife and baby would appear under the darkness of night on the streets where the homeless lived. Wait, with the baby? Yes.
Mazzella explained, “Our baby Joseph was the icebreaker. When I first started to reach out to these people, I was a pariah, a circus side act.” Mazzella said they didn’t know what to make of him and he felt shunned. “That was fair,” he said. “The shunning was good for me. They get a good dose of it themselves so maybe I needed to feel that, too.”
Mazzella kept showing up and eventually he earned their respect. Word spread and now he is better known and received. His wife and baby don’t accompany him anymore due to COVID-19, but he continues his work. When he arrives, he can speak to them individually, to see if they’re ok, and ask if they need anything. Often the answer is “No, thanks. Well, maybe yes.”
The homeless folks he visits are beginning to refer him to their friends. “It’s easier to help when they have a degree of trust. They’ll say, thanks, I’m fine but Bob around the corner is on a bench and he’s in trouble. Please go check on him,” said Mazzella. They are a tight-knit community – even though they appear to have nothing, they have each other and their faith.
One very cold night, he came upon a sleeping, shivering man lying on a cardboard box. Mazzella placed some items next to him, socks, bandages, etc. The man startled awake and, after Mazzella explained who he was, they sat and talked for about an hour. The man said he wanted to pray, so they prayed together. Mazzella said, “The homeless people I meet are very in tune to their spiritual side. Having lost everything, they still have their faith, God, and religion.”
Mazzella is himself a man of faith and looked to Mark 2:17 in the Bible as the inspiration for his work. “Jesus said, ‘It’s not the healthy who need a physician, it’s the sick.’ While the meaning was more related to spiritual healing, I feel it applies to this work.”
Mazzella’s compassion and care can be found not only in his work but also in the stories he shares on the MedStreet website. The dignity and respect with which he writes about his homeless patients reads like a Victorian novel, with Lady Godiva, Gentleman Jack, and the Count of Monte Cristo. Of course, he uses these pseudonyms to protect their identities, but it goes further than that. “The Victorian era had a societal formality to it, with pomp and circumstance. I wanted to bring that to the people I was trying to help, as so often their surroundings are the opposite of that.”
The primary focus of MedStreet is to take care of these people so they feel love, respect, and care. Mazzella does some work with food-related charities in the area, joining them on some of their rounds down the Route 1 corridor and beyond to see if medical care is needed in the homes that receive food. It’s this “care crowd-sourcing” model of MedStreet that Mazzella wants to share. Rather than marshaling other doctors to help, he’d like MedStreet to become a resource for similar professionals to use.
The team at MedStreet is working on a platform to assist with the regulatory hurdles (pharmacy board, malpractice insurance, HIPAA compliance, etc.) so doctors can lead teams once the COVID-19 threat is minimized and they can work in larger groups to help people.
Additionally, the team is looking to create a resource engine on the website with a two-pronged approach. One part would enable people to make in-kind donations, and the other part would allow the homeless to log in and make specific requests for needed items (socks are the most requested). Once that engine is in place, a donor can see a specific item and provide that direct need.
If you’d like to help the worthy mission of MedStreet right now, they are always grateful to accept donations. Sign up on the website (www.medstreet.org) to keep in touch, receive timely updates, and perhaps become a volunteer. They will be hosting a month of Giving Tuesdays in December and launch a new fundraising campaign during the Valentine season in February.
“The volunteer work is very rewarding. People want to be involved in something good,” said Mazzella. “I know I always want to give more than I get, but every single time I end up getting more than I give.”
MedStreet Inc. is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization (TIN# 83-4054043) under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law. MedStreet’s CFC number is 94703.