Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Student Provides Support to Baltimore Youth

Working with Thread, Erin Chen has learned more about her city and has formed a Baltimore family.

Bryan Stepney Jr. and Erin Chen
Published in Community Health - Community Health Stories

From car rides to school to ramen noodle dinners, Erin Chen, a student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been a constant in Bryan Stepney Jr.’s life for seven years. Chen met Stepney through Thread, a Baltimore organization that enrolls ninth-grade students from six Baltimore public schools in a network of care and support for young people facing opportunity and achievement gaps. Thread volunteers commit to working with the students for 10 years.

“Erin is like my big sister,” says Stepney, now age 22. “She helps me and gives good advice. She gives me relationship advice, emotional advice if something is going on with my parents, financial advice, and she’ll call me out if I do something silly. I know she cares.”

Students qualify for Thread if they rank academically in the bottom 25% of their class and have many other challenges in and out of the classroom. Coupling individualized support with efforts such as after-school tutoring, college visits, camping trips and community service enables Thread students and volunteers to hone their skills and explore their passions together. This personal development builds toward high school graduation and identification of a pathway after high school — two critical milestones on the journey toward academic and professional success.

Since Thread’s founding, Johns Hopkins students and faculty members have been the organization’s largest source of volunteers. Thread also collaborated with the school of medicine’s student diversity office to create the Diversity and Academic Advancement Summer Institute.

“From the onset, Thread has fostered relationships between Johns Hopkins students and staff and academically underperforming high school students who were at risk of failing to graduate,” says Helene Kahn, Thread’s senior director of communities. “Sarah Hemminger, Thread’s CEO and co-founder, herself earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the university.”

Chen’s experience with Thread started while she was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. Now in her third year of medical school, Chen says volunteering with Thread has been a great way to build her own networks of support, learn more about the Baltimore community and make new friends while having fun too.

“When I met Bryan, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do or how to approach thinking about long-term goals,” says Chen. “Now he knows Thread is always there. We work together to figure things out and problem solve. It’s been fun to see his growth and achievements along the way.”

With the help of Thread, Stepney transferred from the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a school for middle and high school students, to Job Corps to learn to be an electrician and to obtain a high school diploma.

“Before Thread, my life was kind of rough,” says Stepney. “I didn’t have the help I needed to excel any further. I didn’t have people to ask for help or people who would ask how I was doing. Thread gave me a comfortable community space to be in, people who made me excited about my future and people who actually cared.”

Stepney recently passed his driving permit test and is working at Chipotle, hoping to buy a car. The auto will make it easier to get to an electrician apprenticeship.

“My Thread family has helped me be more mature and look at things differently,” says Stepney. “I feel like I have direction and a plan I’m working toward.”

Kahn says despite Chen’s demanding schedule as a medical student, she has been an unfailing anchor of support for Stepney. She says Chen has provided critical academic and professional encouragement to Stepney as he navigates young adulthood.

“Erin has supported Thread community members who have experienced gun violence, eviction, instability at home, challenges at school and personal heartbreak,” says Kahn. “Without going into too much detail, Erin has handled some of the hardest and most heartbreaking situations that life can throw your way while in Thread. She has stood shoulder to shoulder with those in her Thread family as they grieved together, learned and really lived life together. Her loyalty and dedication to her Thread family and the broader Thread community are inspiring, and her impact has been immeasurable.”

This year, Alan Mclain, Thread’s post-high-school community manager, nominated Chen for the 2023 medical student community service award from SOURCE, the community engagement and service-learning center for the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and nursing and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“I believe that Erin’s success as a volunteer comes not just from her compassionate heart but through her enjoyment of the Thread community,” says Mclain. “She is tenacious enough to love in hard times and wise enough to know that community building isn’t just about doing for others — it is about being present with your whole heart and finding true joy in other people. Erin is proof that all of us can make a difference, and her Thread family is a picture of what we as a city need to continue to build if we want to see a better Baltimore for everyone.”

For more information about Thread, visit