School was out for the day. The children slumped around a tiny television, its flickering images dancing on their vacant faces.
It was just another afternoon at the St. Vincent de Paul Gateway Shelter for Women and Families.
But there was one difference that day. A student in the Wright State University biomedical sciences Ph.D. program was touring the Dayton shelter. And the image of children idle and listless would burn in his brain, clawing at his conscience.
So Eric Romer brought it up with Wright State medical student Adam Deardorff one day during lunch.
“What can we do to make a difference?” they asked themselves.
Some serious brainstorming began.
Today, there is a study space and tutors for the children not only at the homeless shelter, but also at the St. Vincent de Paul Kettering Commons—apartments for families who have experienced chronic homelessness.
It’s all because of a student volunteer program launched at Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine following that lunchtime brainstorming session.
Romer said there are children at the shelter and in the apartments with real human problems that can roadblock their academic careers.
“This is not throwing money, books, computers, supplies at them; it’s getting down with somebody, showing interest, getting involved,” Romer said. “You need to have that human component. And they respond so well.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Society at Wright State was established by Romer and his friends and is fed largely by student volunteers from the medical school. Romer’s wife, Shannon, a student in Wright State’s biomedical sciences Ph.D. program, does the heavy lifting when it comes to scheduling and administrative duties. And medical student Danielle Fleissig works tirelessly to recruit volunteers.
Volunteers come to the shelter and apartment complex four days a week to tutor the children, who generally range in age from five to 12. The volunteers have also constructed a makeshift study space at the shelter and raised money to buy computers, printers, copiers, and educational supplies.
In 2011, about 25 medical students logged nearly 400 hours of volunteer work at the shelter and the apartments. And 32 students were volunteering hours with the homeless in the first two months of 2012 alone.
Deardorff said the medical students get a lot out of the experience.
“It gets them down to a homeless shelter,” he said. “When they’re doing their residency and they’re dealing with underserved individuals, they need to know who the patients are and what their lives are like. If we’re trying to train people to be professionals and work in an urban environment, they’re going to have to know all of the facets of that urban life.”
Volunteering to help
The after-school tutoring program is one of many similar student activities at Boonshoft.
Last year, more than 25 students put in time at the Dayton-based Community Blood Center/Community Tissue Services, the fifth largest tissue bank in the United States.
“What they’re doing is incredibly valuable for us,” said Cissy Hansen, Community’s manager of volunteer services. “These kids are used to working very hard and very quickly and multi-tasking.”
Bone powder and spiked heels
Community service is part of the Boonshoft tradition
The Boonshoft School of Medicine has a long history of community partnership and service.
In addition to co-curricular activities where students are involved in volunteering both independently and through student service clubs, medical school students engage in curricular-based servicelearning experiences. As a required part of the elective program, all students complete 60 hours of service learning.
Service learning is a teaching pedagogy that places students in applied-education communitybased settings where there is an equal emphasis on what the student is learning and the service they are providing.
The American Association of Medical Colleges encourages opportunities such as service learning in medical education to further the work of community engagement and civic responsibility in the professional practice of medicine.
Sites include the Community Blood Center/Community Tissue Center, St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelters, Reach Out, the Wright State Weekend Intervention Program, area secondary and elementary schools, Hospice of Dayton, New Orleans (Relief Spark, Project Lazarus, and Camp Restore), the Alzheimer’s Association, Project C.U.R.E., Dayton Habitat for Humanity, and various hospitals, clinics, and charitable organizations in the students’ hometowns.
Some of the students pack package inserts for bone powder, which is primarily used for dental work and some other orthopedic surgeries. Community Tissue Services distributes more than 200,000 tissue grafts annually to hospitals and medical professionals around the nation and the world.
Without the students, said Hansen, the packing process would gobble up precious worktime of other staffers and slow the distribution.
The building is a bustling beehive of activity. Workers garbed in blue sterile outfits use precision machinery to cut and shape bone in Class 100 clean rooms. Other workers process skin, bone powder, and traditional grafts.
Hansen recalled the day she arrived at work and found a young Boonshoft student loading 30-pound boxes of bone and tissue while wearing a skirt and spiked heels.
“She said, ‘I’m going to a seminar so I had to be dressed for it, but this is what I came down to do.’ Is that commitment?” Hansen said. “I think some of them develop a certain passion for what they’re doing. It means something to them.”
Dan Noble, a second-year medical student at Boonshoft, not only puts in time at Community Tissue Services, but is recruiting other students in order to keep the program going.
Noble, of Akron, said the experience has given him a better understanding of the importance of bone and tissue and the magnitude of its distribution.
“The hardest thing is to find time to do it with such a busy schedule,” he said. “I don’t get a lot of recognition, and I like that because I think it’s the purest form of volunteering.”
Some of the students work as couriers, driving vans filled with bone and tissue to and from the center. They often have to sandwich shifts between a grueling load of classes, labs, and study sessions.
Hansen said the experience offers the students a unique view of bone and tissue donation and how it saves and enhances peoples’ lives.
“Some physicians don’t see this until they’re in internships or residents. And very few of them will actually see how it’s done, or what goes into it,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for these students to come down and see what they’re about to spend a lifetime doing. I think that we open a lot of eyes.”
The students who volunteer at the homeless shelter may not spend their lifetimes doing it, but they certainly get lifetime lessons.
“Most of them didn’t grow up homeless or never knew that side of things,” said Fleissig. “It’s nice to give people that perspective.”
The volunteers see the effects on families of getting sucked into the cycle of poverty and losing family structure as a result.
“It raises awareness about what’s going on, what’s happening in our community,” Romer said. “And it gives a birds-eye view that young people wouldn’t normally have. You think about homelessness and abject poverty, but you don’t think about it five minutes from where you’re sleeping.”
Romer said homelessness can cause parents to become deficient in life skills and habits, academic skills, confidence, and job readiness.
“They have children that grow up in that atmosphere that aren’t ready to sustain themselves,” he said. “And it progresses from generation, to generation, to generation. These families are essentially broken.”
Shannon Romer said the kids have been hurt by the transient circumstances of their families.
“They slip through the cracks a little bit when it comes to education,” she said. “I’ve had to teach a third-grader how to write his name.”
Eric Romer said the tutoring programs are an effort to intervene with the children before they develop wrong life habits and to give them life skills and confidence.
A sanctuary for kids
The students’ work at the Gateway Shelter is designed to create a quiet, structured sanctuary for the children that buffers them from the chaos resulting from the transient nature of the residence. The effort at the Kettering apartment complex is a more organized attempt to help the children progress academically.
The student volunteers try to establish a trusting relationship with the kids so they will open up. The relationship is built around homework so the children accomplish something together with the tutor. The whole time, the tutors try to instill the life skills of respect, responsibility, and motivation.
“All they want is positive interaction with an adult,” said Deardorff. “And if you can give that to them, they’ll do well. You can turn them around.”
This is why I’m doing this
The volunteer work is not easy. It can be frustrating. And the students have to squeeze it in between a dizzying schedule of classes, labs, and studying.
But Romer knows it’s worth it, recalling the time he spent an hour with a young girl teaching her how to write her name.
“We’re getting ready to leave. She stops, turns around, hugs me, and says ‘Thank you,’” said Romer, choking up with emotion. “It stuck with me. So when I get annoyed or frustrated, I go back to that and say, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’”
To make sure the program survives after they graduate and move away, the volunteers have set up a system to recruit incoming students.
“We fear that if we don’t do this,” Deardorff said, “it will go back to being an empty room with blank walls and eight kids huddled around a tiny little TV not doing their homework after school.”