Medical students help local kids hit the books

Medical students help local kids hit the books

Last year, Arhanti Sadanand was faced with a choice. Part of her responsibilities as a first-year student in the VCU School of Medicine included participating in LINC, or Learners Involved in the Needs of Communities. She knew she wanted working with children to be part of her community service.

She chose to volunteer with the Fulton Outreach Program, where she could tutor school-aged children in the Fulton Hill neighborhood after school. When her first-year LINC commitment came to an end, Sadanand decided to continue volunteering.

“I wanted to remain in touch with the Richmond community,” said Sadanand, who acknowledges it can sometimes be hard to get out from under the books. “I view Fulton as a really great study break. For a couple hours, I can clear my mind of studying and just focus on helping a kid learn about fractions. It’s refreshing.”

Three other second-year medical students decided to commit for a second year, and they’ve joined forces with about half a dozen first-year students this year. Working together, the students are able to supply tutors for two hours a day, four days a week.

Of the 100 school-aged children in the Fulton community, as many as half are regularly involved in the after-school sessions. While most are elementary school-aged, students from kindergarten through high school can come for homework help in reading and math. After a first hour of hitting the books, the second is devoted to games and activities.

“Tutoring has made a huge impact on me,” Sadanand said. “I feel that I have made lasting connections with the kids when I hear that they ask about me over the school vacations, and I consider myself lucky that some of them have accepted me as a regular part of their lives.”

Working alongside the medical students are Fulton residents Chavioleytte Crenshaw and Theresa Burrell who are committed to helping care for and mentor the children in the neighborhood. A program coordinator from the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority also assists in running the program.

“I think there are often misconceptions about the Fulton neighborhood and generalizations about the kinds of people who live in the projects,” Sadanand said. “After spending time with the kids and exploring the history of the community, I’ve learned a lot about what binds the community together. There are a few amazing women who have invested much of their own time and resources to keep these kinds of enrichment programs alive. Initially, I was surprised by how hard they have pushed to help their own children succeed, and now I am simply in awe of how deeply they care for the entire neighborhood.”

Giving medical students the opportunity to better understand the Richmond community is one of LINC’s goals. The nationally recognized service-learning experience serves as a critical link between the school and the community and allows students to experience first-hand the environments in which their patients spend their lives.

“I know that many of us wish we could do more for our community,” Sadanand said. “Realistically, two hours of my time each week isn’t enough to solve big problems, but I find that simply showing up every week, especially for a child who doesn’t necessarily have a stable role model, is undervalued. I’m happy to be part of a medical school community in which others feel the same way.”

Danny Avula, M.D., who graduated from the School of Medicine in 2004, helped get the project off the ground. He worked with Joan Seldon, family and community services manager with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, to get access to an empty public housing unit in Fulton Avenue to give the tutoring program a home.

Avula, who is the deputy director of the Richmond City Health District, continues to support the program. He stays on the lookout for community partnerships and funding opportunities. He and Seldon teamed up again and were able to secure a small stipend for the program’s coordinator from the Office of Attorney General.

“We think the Fulton initiative is a beautiful example of how committed community residents, paired with dedicated MCV students, are making a meaningful difference in the lives of kids in the Fulton neighborhood,” said Andrew Thompson, special projects coordinator with the Richmond City Health District. “And all with essentially zero funding.”

Andrew Thompson provided information and photos for this article.

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