Bob Atkins, PhD, RN has devoted his adult life to children. He spent the early part of his career as a school nurse in East Camden, N.J., a poverty-stricken urban area just a few miles from his suburban hometown in Cherry Hill. And he later co-founded a youth development program for underserved teenagers that blended meaningful activities like tree planting and soccer with academic work and included an annual summer retreat in Vermont.
He even spent his first date with his future wife surrounded by kids: He took her ice-skating with about three dozen members of his youth development program on Christmas Eve years ago. She loved it—and him, and they’re now raising two boys of their own.
So it hit Atkins hard when one of the children in his youth development program died suddenly of a brain tumor. The boy had complained of headaches, and surely had experienced other problems such as changes in vision and mood, Atkins says, but he was never seen by a health care provider. “What went wrong?” Atkins asks. “How did he fall through gaps?”
It’s the kind of question Atkins has asked himself ever since his career began.
As a school nurse in East Camden, Atkins got a good look into the relationship between class and health. He noticed that while the low-income students that he cared for were often treated for life-threatening and chronic health problems, they weren’t always treated for sub-acute problems like ringworm, tooth decay, and poor vision—even though they too affect children’s health, mood and ability to learn. That’s largely because low-income parents encounter numerous obstacles in addressing their children’s sub-acute health problems: They work non-traditional hours, hold multiple jobs, or face linguistic, cultural, or educational barriers to care.
Now an associate professor of nursing and childhood studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Atkins researches the effects of class on children’s health. He is an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program (2008-2011) and director of RWJF’s New Jersey Health Initiatives, a statewide grantmaking program that supports community-based service projects.
“My experience living in Camden and working with youth in Camden as a school nurse and co-founder of a youth development program sparked my interest in the influence of high poverty environments on the life chances of youth,” he said. “What we learned is that poverty matters because poverty affects where people live.”