Bright Idea: Youth Input Helps Design Online Repository for Personal Records

A young man using a smart phone.

Cynthia Solomon didn’t know much about homeless youth when she set out to build a secure website where people could store their personal health records. She founded a tech company, FollowMe, in Sonoma, CA, and first developed the health records site after her son had an accident and couldn’t communicate a serious medical condition to first responders.

Looking for potential markets, Solomon joined forces with Wind Youth Services, a California-based nonprofit working with homeless youth, to test her prototype. The two organizations launched a Youth Ambassador Program to gather ongoing feedback on the product’s design and features. Solomon says the process resulted in an improved product named HealthShack and, for her and her company, a newfound appreciation about the value of youth input.

From Testers to Marketers

According to Solomon, youth ambassadors first began sharing their stories to help make HealthShack more responsive to their needs.

Solomon says, “What was exciting was … the youth themselves sort of taking it on and basically saying, ‘Well, health information is important, but it’s not as important as where I’ve lived. It’s not as important as a place to store some of our important information.’”

HealthShack now allows users to upload non-medical documents such as leases and school records. Youth can also create and edit their resumes.

Soon, ambassadors started getting involved in the business end of the project. They created a sample business plan and put together agendas to meet with funders. They also got involved with marketing, designing the logo and creating promotional t-shirts.

Even the HealthShack name came from the youth ambassadors after they said they didn’t like the name adults had come up with. According to Solomon, youth debated the new name for nearly six weeks.

Beyond HealthShack

Youth ambassadors were also asked to talk to their peers about HealthShack and to teach them how to use it. Some traveled across California to give demonstrations at conferences and events. For a period of time, Wind Youth Services even received grant funding to pay young adults for their help.

“It really encouraged and empowered them to become not only good public speakers, but knowledgeable about the health care system and competent to speak with other youth and bring them in,” Solomon says.

For at least one ambassador, being in the program led to a health career. She recently completed a degree in pharmacy technology.

Continued Commitment

In October, Solomon formed a new partnership with technology company AltruIT to bring HealthShack to a broader audience. Their first joint contract is with a large foster care agency in California that works with approximately 800 youth transitioning out of foster care.

AltruIT CEO Barbara Sorensen says she hopes to bring ambassadors into future conversations and incorporate more of their suggestions.

“That’s kind of what our next step is going to be, to engage the youth in yet another area ….to see what we can do to expand that and to incorporate several additional functionalities and documents,” she says.

Learn more about HealthShack by contacting Barbara Sorensen at

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