UMMS graduates leave lasting mark on Worcester community

By Jim Fessenden

UMass Medical School Communications

May 27, 2014
This year, the annual auction raised $13,800 for the Worcester County Food Bank. Shown from left to right: Amarilys Rojas, SOM 2017; Caroline Yang, SOM 2017; Jean G. McMurray, Executive Director, Worcester County Food Bank; Robert Martin, SOM 2017; and Naomi Reville LeBlanc, Director of Development, Worcester County Food Bank.

Staffing free medical clinics, raising funds for local nonprofits, promoting healthy eating options, working with foster children: these are just a few of the ways that the UMass Medical School Class of 2014 realized the school’s mission to advance the health and well-being of the people of the commonwealth while giving back to the Worcester community.

“UMMS students understand the important role they play in the health of their community and we consistently see them stepping up, volunteering, engaging with and making a difference in the Worcester community,” said James Leary, vice chancellor for community and government relations.

Perhaps no student has embraced the Worcester community more or given so freely of his or her time then Jennifer MacDonald, MD/PhD candidate and 2014 class member. During her 14 years in Worcester, first as an undergraduate at Clark University, and more recently as a doctoral and medical student at UMMS, she has volunteered for the Worcester Evening Free Medical Service Program at Epworth United Methodist Church, the Worcester Free Clinic Coalition, the Red Cross, the Carriage House and the Injury Free Coalition for Kids among others. For her numerous efforts she received the Worcester Telegram and Gazette’s 2010 Visions Community Awards, Young Leader Award and in 2014 was named one of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s 29 Who Shine award recipients.

“Community-based volunteer work is something that is simply just a part of what UMMS students do. It’s something that we find important in our lives,” said MacDonald, who will do her pediatrics residency at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia after graduation. “Getting off campus and engaging in the community is a good contrast to the time spent in the classroom and it serves as a reminder of the desire to help others that led to a career in medicine.”

Many students see their volunteer work as a way to enhance and extend the classroom and clinical training they receive at UMMS. Matthew DeWolf, MD candidate and class of 2014, co-founded WooFood as a way to promote healthful eating options at local restaurants that were both easy to order and desirable. A student-initiated project funded with a $500 MLK Semester of Service Student Award, WooFood is now an independent nonprofit that certifies Worcester-area restaurants and food services that make healthy eating choices easy. After only three years, the WooFood logo is visible in 11 local restaurants and it is actively expanding beyond the Worcester area.

“Throughout medical school I have seen numerous encounters where a physician has told a patient to eat more healthy food. WooFood is a way to help people do just that by working with local restaurants to create options that are nutritious and delicious,” said DeWolf, who will begin an orthopedic residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, next month. “The average American eats out four times per week. WooFood is huge way to help engage people to eat healthier without sacrificing the foods they love.”

The addition of the learning communities in 2010 has also had an impact on community engagement. The communities, organized into five houses that each include medical students across all four years, provide a framework for student-initiated outreach projects to continue, passed down to rising students, after their founders have graduated.

The Kelley Backpack program gives each child who transitions into state care from UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center and the Pediatric Emergency Department a backpack loaded with age- and gender-appropriate items such as books, stickers, games, hair accessories, toothbrushes, pajamas, blankets and stuffed animals. It started as a student project idea and quickly became the signature Kelley House community project. Begun in 2011, the program was co-founded by Alison Little, MD candidate and class of 2014, who said the learning communities “provide an organic way for students to get involved in service projects. We don’t always have a lot of free time so having house-sponsored projects is a way for us to be involved without having to start individual projects with community organizations.”

“Over the last three years I have been impressed by the generosity of community members from UMMS and the greater Worcester area and the response to the Kelley Backpack program,” said Little, who will start her pediatrics residency at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence after graduation. “After the Telegram & Gazette ran the Kelley Backpack story in Dec. 2012, we were overwhelmed with emails from people who wanted to donate. It’s been a nice reminder of how big hearted the community is.”

One UMMS outreach project, the annual UMMS Student Body Committee (SBC) Charity Auction, which donates proceeds to a local charity, can trace its history back to at least 1984. This year, the annual auction raised $13,800 for the Worcester County Food Bank according to SBC member Caroline Yang, SOM class of 2017. “UMMS is Worcester’s medical school,” said Yang. “As medical students, we spend formative years here and there’s a sense that we have an important part to play in meeting the health needs of the community. I think that’s why so many of us look for way to give back and engage.” 

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