Oriented Toward Service

“Everything we do today has meaning and will have an impact on people in need; whether it’s a packaged meal, a homemade quilt, a reusable bag, or a first aid kit,” said Elana Neshkes, a second-year medical student at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS). As co-chair of the event, this day is especially powerful for Neshkes because, “It’s a way to bring together first- and second-year medical students along with physical therapy and physician assistant students to make a huge difference in the lives of people who need our help the most.”

Neshkes, along with co-chairs Shweta Bansil and Brent Willowbee, both second-year medical students at SMHS, joined hundreds of students, staff, faculty, residents, and alumni at SMHS to help those in need at this year’s Commitment to Community Day, Aug. 29.  “Service is really something we do every day, but today we celebrate it as one of our key missions by taking time out and specifically focusing on a few nonprofit organizations that we as a school can be assistance to,” said Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, G.M.E. ’85, vice president for health affairs and dean of SMHS.

Community service is what drives Mary Burke as a first-year doctor of physical therapy student at SMHS, “This is what we are passionate about and want to do with our careers,” said Burke.

This year’s annual service-learning event was spent preparing 126,000 bagged meals made of rice, soy, dried vegetables, and micronutrients through Kids Against Hunger D.C. Metro, a humanitarian food-aid organization that combats hunger in the United States and abroad by packaging and distributing nutritious meals to malnourished people. “This is a designed meal put together for children with inadequate nutrition,” said Lakhmir Chawla, M.D., associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at SMHS and co-founder of the D.C. chapter of Kids Against Hunger. 

Funding for these meals was provided by the White Coat Initiative, an SMHS alumni-supported fund that provides first-year medical students with their white coats at the start of each school year.

Jay Lee, a first-year medical student at SMHS, was excited to do what he loves most: help people. “This day is all about assisting those who are less fortunate both in our region and around the world,” he said.  

A significant portion of the packaged meals traveled half way around the world to Kenya through relief organization Nyumbani. Founded in 1992 by the late Angelo D’Agostino, M.D., a psychiatrist and Jesuit priest, Nyumbani provides medical attention, prevention education, counseling, and self-help skills for more than 3,000 children in Nairobi living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. “You can administer all the medication in the world to children, but if you don’t feed them it isn’t going to work,” said Marilyn Jerome, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at SMHS and president of the Children of God Relief Fund (COGRF), which supports Nyumbani’s effort by providing medicine, education, community outreach, and village-based elder and orphan care to individuals affected by HIV/AIDS. The meals were also distributed at Bread for the City, a non-profit organization that provides food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services for underserved populations in Washington, D.C.  

As the director of outreach for the Student Academy of the American Association of Physician Assistants, Elizabeth Prevou, a dual-degree M.P.H. and first-year physician assistant (PA) student, knows the value of interprofessional collaborations and working within the community. “It’s great to have SMHS students working together to improve the well-being of the community, both locally and nationally,” she said.

When they weren’t sifting through ingredients to make the packaged meals, the groups were decorating reusable grocery bags— through World Relief Nashville/Memphis, a faith-based international relief and development organization, making quilts, or assembling first aid kits.

For Tom Lorenz, a first-year PA student at SMHS, the day was particularly poignant, because it united students throughout SMHS. “Medicine is very service-oriented,” Lorenz said. Commitment to Community Day is about that and more. The event is not only about being actively involved in your own community, according to Lorenz, it’s also about establishing a community within the school. “In the health care field we work as teams; so what better way to create a foundation for teamwork than to do this.”