This fall, when I found out that I had received the Wilma Rayta Volunteer of the Year award from the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), I was surprised and honored that they had thought of me. My relationship with COTS goes back years, and has been such a meaningful presence in my life as I’ve grown from a shy twelve year-old to a first-year medical student.
I grew up in Waterbury, Vt., about 30 minutes from Burlington. When I was in the seventh grade, we were assigned a project by our social studies teacher. She called it the “Change the World” project. Our task was to find a community organization to volunteer with each month and to reflect on our experiences. I volunteered at COTS in Burlington monthly during seventh and eighth grade, doing arts and crafts activities with the children and families in their Main Street homeless shelter. I continued to volunteer for COTS fundraisers throughout high school. After college, while working in Burlington, I returned to volunteering in the family shelters weekly as a Book Buddy, a children’s literacy volunteer.
Volunteering with the kids at COTS quickly taught me flexibility. Reading was not always a popular activity – often I’d make deals – ten minutes of tag or hide and seek for one book. One night last February, I drew my own crossword puzzle with as many names of New England Patriots players as I could remember, figuring that if the ten year-old boys didn’t want to read, they could practice spelling. The time I spent in the shelters showed me first-hand the challenges these families experienced. Everything is harder in a homeless shelter- mealtime, homework, illness. Families were coping with so many stressors at once. Some parents didn’t speak English. Some children were learning it for the first time.
When it comes to whether my volunteer experience encouraged me to pursue medicine, for a while, it did the opposite. I realized just how much patients can be coping with outside of what is medically wrong, and as doctor, you’re only able to fix that one part. I wondered, is that enough? But I also realized through volunteering how many dedicated people we have in our community addressing different facets of poverty and homelessness. When I become a doctor, I can be one small part of the solution.
So far in medical school, we’ve had several lectures on the social determinants of health. Because of COTS, that’s not just a phrase from a PowerPoint slide. That’s a little girl in a ladybug costume who I still remember from my first visit to COTS eleven years ago. That’s a mom with two kids under two. It’s children who have had to change schools, adapt to living with strangers- children who are smart, funny, and resilient. The hours I have spent with them have given me an understanding I couldn’t have gained any other way.