My first night on earth was spent in a shoebox; my mother had separated from my father and my mother, older brother, and I were homeless. With a baby and a toddler with autism, and after incurring a job-related disability, it was hard for my mother to find a place for us to live, and we moved many times. Eventually we settled in a dingy motel in Westchester, New York. My mother relied on food pantries, and soup kitchens at local churches to feed our family of three. One of the soup kitchens also gave away clothing and toys that had been donated. Our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were provided by various organizations each year.
By the time I was three, my mother found us a one-bedroom apartment in a pre-war building in Larchmont, New York. She made very little money working as an instructor at NYU College of Dentistry, earning a one-thousand-dollar annual stipend which restricted us to an extremely tight budget. My brother and I shared the small bedroom while my mother slept on a broken-down sofa. My mother was promoted to assistant professor the following year, but still earning a wage insufficient to support our family. We became eligible for assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, through which we obtained a three-bedroom apartment in the same building.
The moment I stepped into my own room, I felt a tranquility like never before. With my family living in close quarters, lacking stability for such an extended period of time, I had no sense of space and respite. I realized in that moment that we hadn’t been living; we had merely been surviving.
Somehow, while often not easy, I found a way to thrive in a community where we lacked the support of those around us due to our circumstances. As I became older, I realized that obstacles are often hidden opportunities for growth, understanding, and a new-found appreciation for what I did have. Primarily, I was fortunate to have a mother who sought out services and help when we needed it, in an attempt to better the lives of her children.
My early childhood experiences cultivated a desire to address the pressing needs of others. As a future physician, I aspire to be a valued leader in my community and address the concerns of the underserved in a larger capacity. As a first-year medical student at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and as a fellow of the New Hampshire/Vermont chapter of The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, I have the opportunity to do exactly that.
As a fellow, I’m required to design and implement a year-long service project. Mine focuses on helping people who are homeless more easily access services offered by the city of Burlington. We will hold a “Here to Help” clinic July 1st, at First United Methodist Church in Burlington. At the clinic, people who are homeless will be able to access basic necessities such as hot showers, haircuts, and health screenings. They will also get a hot meal and be given toiletry bags. Staff from Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) will be able to meet and interact with the unsheltered, and begin to build trusting relationships and triage them to permanent housing in a timelier manner.
Our principal goal is to house 10 percent of those who are currently homeless by April 2017. The central locality of the “Here to Help” clinic at First United Methodist Church will help make service organizations more accessible to people who are homeless and, hopefully, increase the opportunities for the unsheltered to connect with service providers that meet their specific needs.
Another important part of this project is to have the community embrace and welcome back into society those who have been estranged from many years. With the help of local volunteers at this clinic, the community can help restore hope and support change for those in great need. This clinic will cater to the needs of the clients, changing throughout the year to meet expectations that will best suit those who attend. Over time, I hope this project will become self-sustaining and will boost community morale. I’m ecstatic to see the support this project has already received from various community organizations, and am very hopeful for its future success.