“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.”
Those words are attributed to John Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher-educator who argued persuasively that the purpose of education is not simply to prepare young people to earn a living, but also to gain a deep understanding of the society in which they live and how they can function and contribute to it. In fact, he believed that achievement of a “democratic” society was not possible without that deep understanding, and that it could only be gained through personal experiences (Dewey J. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. MacMillan. 1916).
In the medical world, its axiomatic that doctors require a full understanding of the patients they serve. That understanding must go beyond the physiology and pathology of their medical diseases and extend to the circumstances of their patient’s lives and how those circumstances influence the genesis and treatment of their medical ailments. If medical education is to prepare students fully for this challenge, it can’t be achieved simply through expressions of commitment and recitation of facts. It requires personal encounters and lived experiences.
The concept of “service learning” in medical education is fundamentally a commitment to provide those experiences. The challenge, of course, is that it can’t be forced upon the unwilling. Medical schools need to firstly select young people in whom the consciousness of community service and social accountability already exists, and to then provide opportunities in which fruitful educational encounters can develop. Basically, we outline the concepts and point to opportunities. It’s up to our students to take up the challenge. And they do, which, I must say, is one of the most satisfying and affirming experiences for any medical educator.
A few weeks ago, I had opportunity to drop by just such an event. It occurred at the opening of the Rideau Heights Community Centre, a facility established by the city to serve an area that has been considered underserviced. Our students, through linkages established with the Loving Spoonful, a Kingston agency committed to providing healthy food security, had opportunity to contribute to that event. I’ll let them describe the experience in their own words, written by the lead organizer, Danielle Weber-Adrian of Meds 2021 (photos courtesy of Danielle and myself).
Last November 4th there was a Health and Human Rights weekend seminar hosted at the School of Medicine Building. This is where I met Mara Shaw (Executive Director of Loving Spoonful) and we started chatting in a food security workshop. During graduate studies, my class fundraised for and hosted a meal at a local soup kitchen. It had been a wonderfully rewarding way to engage with the local community, and I thought the class of 2021 would also enjoy something like this. I pitched the idea to Mara and she immediately said yes. She mentioned that the opening of the Rideau Heights Community Centre would be the prefect venue for this idea. She explained that the demographics of the Rideau Heights neighbourhood included some of those most in need in the Kingston area, and that she’d love to work with us.
Getting the class on board was a cake walk. Bethany Ricker was also at the seminar and she was the first person I approached about this idea. She showed immediate interest and the two of us formed the Rideau Heights Community Meal Committee. After that, five more of our classmates were avid to join the team and we were “off to the races”! Mara put us in touch with a local culinary chef, Tibrata Gillies, and assigned Thea Zuiker from Loving Spoonful to help us organize logistics. Bethany had been a cook at a summer camp before medical school, and the chili was actually her idea. She also single-handedly secured sizable donations of ground beef and vegetables to support our efforts. Tibrata then guided us as to how to prepare our meal, scale up a recipe, and then lead us on the day-of. When I had originally spoken to Mara about this I thought we were going to make a meal for about 200 people, but she told us we were expecting closer to 500 (“if that would work for us”). So, the committee rallied fundraising efforts and took on the challenge! To help mitigate costs, Emily Wilkerson and Bethany spear-headed a mini telephone campaign targeting local bakeries and grocery stores to inquire about bread donations (this was ultimately unsuccessful, but speaks to their resourcefulness and ingenuity!).
Fundraising started in full force in January, and it was a true collective effort. Emily organized a 50/50 draw during a mentorship trivia night, which was wildly successful. Natasha Tang, Sarah Wong, Emma Spence, Angela Brijmohan and Bethany Ricker planned weekly (or biweekly) bake sales and organized volunteer bakers, and I sold “all you can drink” coffee most mornings until we had raised $974.60. Meanwhile, Emma had the fantastic idea of applying for the ASIA (Aesculapian Society Initiative Award) through which we were awarded another $900. This was almost double our initial fundraising goal of $1,000.
For the event itself, Loving Spoonful was a dream to work with. Once we had delivered the funds, they contacted a grocery wholesaler and had most of the food delivered right to the community centre, meaning I only had to make one trip to Walmart for plates and a few other essentials to prepare for the meal. Loving Spoonful was also in contact with the city while designing and planning the community centre kitchen, so they knew exactly what we would have available. Tibrata also got to weigh in and advise the city which kitchen hardware options to invest in.
In the end, we were able to provide a warm, nourishing meal for over 500 Rideau Heights community members, and we had plenty of 2021 (and 2018!) volunteers to cook, serve, and clean up. It was a fantastic experience, and I’ve heard really great feedback from both the class and the event participants.
The School of Medicine Building on Arch Street and the Rideau Heights Community Centre are separated geographically by 4.2 km. Culturally and socioeconomically, the separation is much greater. The students who took the initiative and made the effort to serve the families of north Kingston closed that gap and, in the process, both confirmed the wisdom of our admissions process and made great strides in their journey to becoming great physicians. In short, they did us proud. Congratulations to them.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education