KCU medical students begin academic year with service day

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

More than 260 of Kansas City University’s brand new medical students fanned out across Kansas City in their first act of medical school – living the mission of Kansas City University: “improving the wellbeing of the communities we serve.”

In Northeast, volunteers connected with young people from the urban core at Grace United Community Ministries, KCU Community Garden, Hope Faith, Don Bosco Senior Center, Newhouse Shelter, Nourish KC, Scuola Vita Nuova and more.

At Grace United Community Ministries, medical student volunteers helped with a carnival-themed field day, playing fun games and hosting activities with the summer education program’s students.

“I feel it’s a good chance for them to bond and to see where they can volunteer, because a big part of their programming is volunteering,” said April Oberbroeckling, an administrative assistant with student services. “Our student services team does an amazing job coordinating this event every year. I know it’s a lot of planning and logistics, so I’m thankful that they invite us as staff to participate so we can get to know them because they’ll be seeing our faces on campus every day.”

David Ambroise, a first year medical student who completed his master’s program at KCU last year, originally from Orlando, Fla., is familiar with the school’s dedication to volunteering in the community.

“I’m a very big advocate of the rural community, it’s something that I do want to go into once I become a pediatrician, and I think it’s just very important to give back,” Ambroise said. “With my background, especially from a Haitian descent, I just know the importance of community service and giving back because if we’re fortunate enough to have something, why not just help someone else?”

For him and his fellow students, interacting with children is important practice for the future.

“Especially in medicine, children don’t necessarily communicate or express themselves as well as adults can, so I found it especially helpful if you can kind of find that connection, just to get them started to talk,” Ambroise said.

“My group over there, they started talking about soccer. I played a little bit of soccer, and then he asked me, ‘What position do you play?’ That was too many questions for me. I was never very good, but finding that initial connection was able to kind of break the ice, show them that you don’t have to be shy or anything. They opened up a lot right afterwards.”

Partnering with the Upper Room summer program, student volunteers worked with youth from the community in the community garden, taking part in hands-on, healthy living activities and making their own salsa with ingredients from the garden.

Last week was the medical students’ first week on campus, and after completing orientation they were connected with the community for a day of service, which has been a priority for the school for decades.

“We divided it up into what kids were interested in, so we got the rowdy kids over there, we got the future culinary people over here, and, of course, our artists,” said Dr. Sherri Howell, co-chair for the garden and KCU Family Medicine Physician.

The garden, which has 22 beds of about 100 square feet each, is tended by students and staff of KCU.

“All of this food then gets donated to the Della Lamb Food Pantry, which is right behind us,” Howell said. “It works out really, really well because we’ve got great students that are involved, we’ve got staff that are involved, and as you can see, we got a little bit of everything.”

They grow a variety of peppers, kale, collard greens, zucchini, cucumbers, swiss chard, tomatoes and cantaloupe. Howell hopes soon they’ll be able to get their pollinator garden growing.

“Swiss chard, collards and kale are all in the same cabbage family, and they’re all super greens, so they all are super nutritious,” Howell said. “We choose our plants based on both the ability to produce the nutrition and what the people will use.”

Just this week, they harvested 11 lbs. of kale and another 11 lbs. of Swiss chard. Howell knows fresh food makes all the difference.

“We try to do everything as organically as we can,” Howell said, adding that they use cardboard, which is biodegradable, as a weed blocker. “Organic is a challenge, and so far, only once last year did I have to use anything that wasn’t organic.”

The hours it takes to maintain the garden varies depending on the season, and students’ workload. In the summer, they have three or four students and a few staff. But Friday morning, with 15 first year medical students and a group of middle schoolers, they weeded the majority of the garden in just 10 minutes.

“We work variability in hours,” Howell said. “Early in the year we have to put more hours in, just getting everything cleaned up and everything. But now we’re kind of in a holding pattern. So about two hours a week is enough to get it harvested and keep weeds sort of under control.”

Last year, the garden, and the surrounding Giving Grove fruit trees, produced 1,533 lbs. of fresh, nutritious food.

“When you think about the amount of nutrition in the fresh food, it’s really gratifying,” Howell said. “If students have an interest in gardening, they know where to come.”

Howell recognizes how important it is for the future physicians to learn to connect with their community.

“They connect with these young people who now look at them and go, ‘Maybe I could be a medical student,’” Howell said.

One middle schooler showed interest, and a medical student connected them with Anastasia Underwood, the program coordinator for the Score 1 for Health CHAMPS (Coaching Health and Movement Program for Students) at KCU.

CHAMPS connects first and second year medical students with families in the community within a five-mile radius of campus.

“They are trained by me, a dietitian and a pediatrician, our team, and we work with them to pair them with a family that’s been identified as high risk in the rating process,” Underwood said. “And then they do health behavioral counseling. It’s usually like seven or eight sessions. We try to use our garden here as much as we can and incorporate fresh produce into that, too.”

Score 1 for Health at KCU is always working with families, meeting them where they are – whether it’s school, church, parks or other community locations – to offer resources.

Underwood said it’s truly priceless for students to grow those connections with the community.

“I think the pandemic has shown us, more than anything, how important social skills are and just those experiences, as well,” Underwood said. “So we try to engage them in a community, not only for the community’s good, but theirs as well, because they do get that hands-on social experience and they get the opportunity to start becoming that mentor that they’ll be and to help guide them into that role as a doctor where they’re going to be mentoring a lot of people.”

Trust and communication between patients and their doctors are key, Underwood said.

“Making sure that our doctors are not just listening, but they’re truly hearing and they’re empathizing, and they’re knowing how to engage outside of that, that’s a massive piece to to Score 1,” Underwood said. “We have community health workers, so then if the students work with a family who’s struggling to get access to food, we can also help them with that and get them resources. We try to have a whole health experience with it because, ideally, that’s what we want our doctors to do.”

KCU Community Garden volunteer and third year student Obi Eze Ogbo enjoys helping the community through his school, which has a mission to serve its neighbors.

“It is fun, you get to connect with different students from the school,” Ogbo said. “Because this is like our safe space to vent if we’re stressed, and it’s like a nice break from all the grind of studying, getting one with nature and getting relaxation as well. Just in a therapeutic sense, harvesting, like getting excited when we get like 100 pounds of produce, it’s very fun and fulfilling, and at the same time we’re helping the community.”

Ogbo, who is interested in rehab medicine, said that, as future physicians, connecting with people is one of the biggest parts of the job.

“There’s so much emphasis on the science and diagnosis part of it, which makes sense as well, but also connecting with people, and unfortunately, especially within the first few years of med school, you don’t get much of that opportunity,” Ogbo said. “So having moments like this, even though we’re not diagnosing them or treating them, there’s that interaction point.”

Ogbo, who grew up in urban Houston, Texas, relates to the students he worked with on Friday and hopes to inspire them to consider careers in medicine.

“I didn’t have any doctors around the area, or people in that upper education field, nor opportunities like this,” Ogbo said. “Kids do learn and remember these things… I do think that helps if they see doctors around them and they’re interested, it helps them be like, ‘You know, I can see myself doing some like that too.’”

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