MSU basketball player Colby Wollenman helps people connect with medical care

It's hard not to notice Colby Wollenman.

He came to Michigan State University from a town whose population is smaller than most freshman Econ classes. He arrived with an academic scholarship to study pre-med, then earned an athletic scholarship playing for basketball coach Tom Izzo. After posting a cumulative 3.98 GPA, he's applying to medical schools.

All notable, but not what made Wollenman stand out when he spent time in the Volunteers of America Michigan homeless service center in Lansing last fall. What people noticed then, rather than his 6-foot-7 height, was his down-to-earth style.

You could see it one day last October, even as he towered over a white-haired gentleman in his early 70s waiting to check out of the Sparrow Medical Group medical practice at Volunteers of America. Wollenman's tall and lanky frame doesn't deter clients from interacting – in fact, they open up to him.

"Each time a new client talks, you get their whole life story…who they are and what they are about," Wollenman said.

He dressed professionally for his volunteer shifts at the homeless service center and clinic, he also always wore MSU paraphernalia. The MSU gear comes from the 40,000-student university where he plays basketball for one of the prominent teams in the country. His small-town charm comes from Big Horn, Wyoming, population 500.

As the fifth-year senior gets ready to play in his last home game as a Spartan, on Saturday, March 5, the next phase in Wollenman's life already is in motion. He soon will have to choose from several offers from medical schools. His future medical career is what drove him to spend time at Volunteers of America Michigan, to make sure the homeless connect with health care.

To those who know him, that decision was not surprising.

Assistant Coach Mike Garland notices how Wollenman conducts himself on and off the court.

"Colby is a kind, insightful, chivalrous young man," Garland said. "He is quick to put others before himself. It is pleasant to be around a young man who values service, teamwork and collaboration."

To gain valuable experience in the medical field, he decided to volunteer at Sparrow Medical Group VOA, a medical practice that opened in February 2014 right inside the homeless service center.

Volunteers of America provides shelter, meals, a day center, legal assistance, housing strategy and more at one of the most comprehensive homeless centers in the country. This is where the poorest, most vulnerable people in the region turn for help. The medical practice, operated by Sparrow, provides something previously unheard of for this group: their own doctor.

Previously, these folks relied on the emergency room for any type of medical problem. Now they have a doctor and staff who know their names and their problems. Wollenman saw it as a perfect melding of working with the community and gaining experience in the healthcare field.

His primary role was to help VOA clients connect with Sparrow and use it as their primary care facility. He also helped clients set up a MySparrow account, an online platform where patients can set up appointments, access medical records, fill prescriptions and message doctors.

After VOA staff did their initial intake for clients entering the shelter system, they set up appointments to meet with Wollenman, who also recruited his younger brother, Lucas, to help out. These efforts are intended to create a lasting relationship and encourage clients to use Sparrow as their primary care.

This experience expanded Wollenman's knowledge of culture differences.

"There's no homeless population where I am from," he said. "It opened up my eyes to their presence. It made me see how genuine a lot of them (clients) are and made me more driven to help them. They still showed me respect and expressed that they were grateful for everything I have done."

He also understands the importance of the Sparrow Medical Group at VOA—people who receive better healthcare receive housing and stay in it longer.

"It's kind of fun to see and know that you have helped in their future healthcare."