JUNE 12, 2015—Georgetown medical students have been running the HOYA Clinic, a free clinic located in the old D.C. General hospital building, since 2007. But a year ago, a student had an idea that would bring the medical students even closer to the at-risk population living in the D.C. General Family Shelter: the Big HOYA Little Saxa (BHLS) mentorship program.
BHLS, which is an outgrowth of a student-run summer sports camp for children living in the shelter, consists of a monthly activity day that emphasizes reading, but also includes arts and crafts and an outdoor exercise component. On one Saturday each month, 20-25 Georgetown medical students travel to D.C. General to do activities with 20-25 children living in the shelter.
The way Molly Warren (M’17) tells it, a group of medical students were on their way back to campus after a day of volunteering for the summer sports camp when she floated the idea.
“I just kind of said, ‘Hey, what would you guys think of starting a year-round program with the kids?’” said Warren. “They were all into it—we agreed that one week a year wasn’t enough. Then we really started to get the ball rolling.”
“Dr. Moore really emphasized figuring out exactly what we wanted the kids to get out of the experience, and Dr. Levy emphasized setting goals and writing a business plan,” said Jordan Dow (M’18), a founding member of BHLS. “So we went back to the drawing board, we created a business plan, and we modeled the programming after other mentorship programs while trying to tailor it to D.C. General.”
In the business plan, the leadership team addressed the needs of the children they would be serving as well as the needs of the medical students that would be acting as mentors. The medical students also had to recognize that the transient nature of a homeless shelter meant they had to establish short-term goals for the kids they were setting out to serve.
“The business plan was what it took to get Dr. Moore and Dr. Levy on board,” said Warren. “I am so grateful that they pushed us to write one, because it was an incredibly helpful way for us to visualize parts of the program in a systematic way.”
Making a more flexible model
Even with a strong business plan and a clear sense of programming, the BHLS leadership team—originally comprised of six medical students—soon realized they would need to make adjustments. Holding meetings with the mentors immediately after the activity days helped the organizers gain valuable feedback.
The leadership team modified some structured program elements to make them more flexible, including the program’s format. As a former middle school teacher, Dow envisioned a structured approach where the mentees would spend a set amount of time at each activity before moving on. Over time, however, the programming evolved into a more exploratory environment where the mentees can freely move from station to station whenever they want.
“I made the mistake of making it too much like a classroom, which is why I am grateful for a large leadership team that brought many different perspectives,” Dow said.“The first time we did it, it felt like a lesson, the kids were all over the place, and we didn’t feel like that model took advantage of all the people we had.”
Similarly, BHLS was originally a one-on-one mentoring program, much like Big Brothers Big Sisters. The leadership team changed that approach to a more fluid model when the medical students realized it was more natural for the mentees to interact with multiple mentors.
“Things that sounded really good on paper ended up being ridiculous in practice,” said Warren. “We really had to learn to adjust and adapt.”
“The students have managed this program beautifully,” said Moore, who acts as a faculty advisor for the program. “One of the things they’ve been really smart about is getting real-time feedback. They’ve been very responsive to the needs of the kids.”
On the surface, the purpose of BHLS is to encourage reading and foster healthy eating and exercise. But those involved in the program say there are deeper implications.
“When I was a kid, I looked up to 20-year-olds more than anyone else,” said Larick David (M’18), a member of the leadership team. “So the goal is to use the platform we have as medical students and have a positive impact. We want to encourage healthy habits—but we really want to encourage healthy relationships.”
Annie Schied (M’18), another member of the BHLS leadership, agreed.
“We want to build community with the mentees. It can be isolating in a family shelter. Hopefully through the program, they can meet kids their age that may be able to act as a support group for each other in such a difficult situation,” she said.
That community extends to the HOYA Clinic, where many of the BHLS mentors volunteer.
“When the mentors see the BHLS kids at the clinic, they can meet them where they are, because they know a little about their lives and their personalities,” said Moore. “It also has a secondary effect of making the clinic less scary. We’ll have kids come in just to say ‘hi’ sometimes.”
Less than a year old, BHLS is in its infancy, but the student leaders are already looking to the future.
“One thing we have been seriously considering is expanding to twice a month,” said Dow. “With a month span between activity days, the kids have a lot going on between school and family and life—we think if we come every two weeks it will be regular enough for them to be looking forward to it a little bit more.”
The student leaders may be focusing on the logistics right now, but Moore has more broad goals for the program.
“I have the full expectation that this program will have high impact on the kids, and how that manifests I don’t yet know,” said Moore. “But what I would love to see is each of those kids getting through high school. And my hope and dream is that any kid that wants to go to college knows that college is a real, viable option for them. And that they can reach out to any of us to help support that effort.”
Leigh Ann Renzulli