Lara Weinstein was a second-year student at Jefferson Medical College in 1992 and was frustrated by all the time she was spending in lecture halls.

Every day on her way to and from classes, she passed desperate people living in the shadows of Center City.

She wanted to help, but how?

Weinstein approached a professor, James Plumb, who in turn reached out to Project HOME, the nonprofit agency in North Philadelphia that helps the homeless.

A collaboration began.

Under Plumb's direction, students, including Weinstein, began assisting Project HOME volunteers with medical care in a shelter.

Three years later, the hospital went one step further and opened a free clinic in an old rectory that housed Project HOME offices. Weinstein, by then a resident physician, worked there.

Today, the partnership between Jefferson and Project HOME has taken another quantum step.

On Wednesday, the organizations unveiled plans for an $18 million health and wellness center just a few blocks from the clinic in the old rectory.

The Stephen Klein Wellness Center will bring a variety of health services under one roof to an underserved and struggling part of North Philadelphia.

Richard Wender, chairman of family and community medicine at Jefferson, called the effort groundbreaking.

"There is nothing like this," Wender said. "The need is vast and extends well beyond just providing health care."

About 40 percent of the people who live around the site at 21st Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue live in poverty. Many suffer from such health problems as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Wender said that the city operates public-health clinics and that other nonprofit agencies have neighborhood medical centers. The wellness center, however, will place more of an emphasis on preventing illness.

"We need to intervene in a more comprehensive way," he said.

The center hopes to qualify as a federal health center, which would make it eligible for public health-care dollars. Construction is expected to begin in January.

Neighbors will be able to see doctors at the center, but also enroll in wellness classes and use a fitness center run by the YMCA. The facility will also have dental offices, a pharmacy, physical therapists, and mental-health and drug-treatment counselors.

The project has raised $14.1 million, including $2.5 million from Stephen Klein, a Philadelphia developer who founded the Klein Co.

Individuals and foundations have come up with an additional $6.1 million. Jefferson donated $1 million, and the city and state made grants totaling $4.1 million.

The project also expects to raise $4.2 million through so-called federal "New Market" tax credits.

Klein said the wellness center will help the mission of Project HOME, which is to not only provide affordable housing but also employment training, medical care, and educational services to people who are homeless.

"I saw this as an opportunity to make real change in North Philadelphia," Klein said at the unveiling, at Project HOME's Honickman Learning Center.

Weinstein, the former medical student who provided the impetus for the Jefferson collaboration, now is a family physician and assistant professor at the medical school. She still works one day a week at the free clinic at Project HOME.

She said she was "excited, hopeful, and overwhelmed" by the prospect of the wellness center.

The goal, she said, is for it to become another anchor for the neighborhood. "I hope what happens in the wellness center doesn't just stay in the wellness center," Weinstein said, "and instead sets a revitalization in motion."

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.