The Odd Couple: Paul Simon and Dr. Irwin Redlener
Think of it as the perfect marriage of hip and square: Paul Simon, the
singer-composer-guitarist who can still rock you into a sweet
thundering oblivion (I saw him perform just a few months ago), and
Irwin Redlener, the dedicated, cerebral physician who refuses to let go
of the thought that good people and hard work can change the world.
They met back in the '80s at a time when homelessness had exploded in
New York City and thousands of families, many with small children, were
being packed into teeming, fetid welfare hotels. Both Paul and Irwin
had been involved in international humanitarian campaigns, but here was
a festering problem almost literally on their doorsteps.
"We went on a tour of some of the not-so-hot spots in the city,"
Irwin said. "We went to the welfare hotels, to boarder-baby
facilities where they had these infants whose mothers were crack
cocaine addicts, and we went to some of the infant H.I.V. programs. It
was a hell of a day, just one thing after another."
With a problem that big, how do you make a real impact? Irwin is a
pediatrician and it was immediately obvious that the kids in the
various shelters were not getting health care. The two men made that
The kids could not easily get to doctor's offices or clinics, so Paul
and Irwin began to brainstorm the idea of a vehicle that would bring
the health services to the kids. It was an intriguing thought - a
fully-equipped, fully-staffed medical van that would travel the city,
bringing essential services to homeless youngsters who normally would
get treatment only in emergencies.
The van would be expensive, perhaps as much as $90,000. Paul said he
would pay for it and the project moved forward. An affiliation was
established with a local medical center for children who required
hospitalization, and a computerized system was devised that allowed
detailed medical histories to follow the kids as they moved from
residence to another.
The gleaming blue van made its debut in the fall of 1987. "The color
was a mistake," Irwin said. "We had ordered a white van with blue
letters. But the van we got was a beautiful blue, so we were really
glad about that."
As Irwin began making his rounds in the van, the enormity of the need
became even more apparent. Paul asked, "Do you think we need another
one?" and Irwin replied, "Oh yeah."
A concert featuring Paul, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, James Taylor
and others was held at Madison Square Garden to raise money for a
second mobile unit. More than two dozen would follow. The project was
named the Children's Health Fund and it now brings vital health
services to children and their families in struggling communities in 13
states and the District of Columbia.
Most recently Paul and Irwin were in Mississippi and Louisiana to guide
the fund's efforts to help kids displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
The best ideas are often the simplest ones. The mobile vans of the
Children's Health Fund was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.