Every Tuesday, Beyond Boulders runs a five-question interview with either a first-year Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).
Today, we talk with Alex Stovall, a Kate B. Reynolds Schweitzer Fellow in North Carolina. Several years ago, Stovall had a successful career as a production supervisor for Pepsi Bottling Ventures. But he was unfulfilled—so he made a mid-life U-turn. Now, Stovall is a physical therapy student at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU)—and as the school’s first Albert Schweitzer Fellow, he’s establishing a physical therapy clinic within the Community Care Center on New Walkertown Road, which depends on volunteers to provide quality health care for the medically underserved and uninsured in Forsyth, Stokes, and Davie Counties.
Why did you develop your particular project?
I wanted to get involved in something that established a link between my school and the community. Being a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) nestled in the heart of Winston Salem’s East Winston neighborhood, I think it’s crucial for the University to set an example of leadership in service. I remember being frustrated by a few unfortunate and highly publicized incidents that overshadowed so many of the good things that the University represents.
A student-run pro bono Physical Therapy (PT) clinic made sense on multiple levels. It serves the student volunteers, affording them the opportunity to learn while giving back through direct interaction in the form of patient care. It meets a desperate need for people in the community who don’t normally have access to secondary medical services–often resulting in permanent and debilitating consequences. Finally, it serves as an important bridge between the school and the community it serves.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I have faith, as well as good reason, to believe that the project will continue to grow and hopefully diversify indefinitely. From the beginning the success of this project has been tied to the dedication and selfless commitment of many people. The faculty, administrators and students of the PT program, in conjunction with the staff at the Community Care Clinic, have worked seamlessly to establish the PT clinic.
I have seen firsthand the needs of the community. I’ve also been fortunate enough to experience the power of people working together and the potential of teamwork as an agent for change in the quality of life of our fellow man.
I think if you asked anyone involved in service why they do it, they would say that they want to make a difference in someone’s life. My hope is that this project can do that now, and going forward. I get excited about the prospect of others, those I have yet to meet, who will experience the same sort of satisfaction I derive from connecting with people, educating them, and hopefully making a difference.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Without a doubt I think it’s the growing problem of obesity, the implications of which aren’t yet fully known. The medical community has its hands full addressing the direct physical manifestations of this problem, such as diabetes, but I think we need to start looking deeper into other areas related to this epidemic.
For example, those that have fought the battles of obesity will tell you that there is an enormous emotional component to eating. Others will tell you that the processing and mass production of inexpensive food with little nutritional value leads to overabundance and excessive convenience.
We need to look at the psychological and sociological underpinnings of the obesity epidemic and incorporate those into our approach when addressing this problem.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
I’ve always known myself to be a compassionate and empathetic person. But until recently, these qualities never translated into a solid history of service to my community. I went into this project with no real idea of what to expect personally. Simply put, I’m most surprised by how much I enjoy the emotional benefits of doing service work. Working hand in hand with people who shared the same positive energy with the common goal of building something tangible (the student-run PT clinic) provided a sense of self-satisfaction I’ve rarely experienced before this project.
One always frets about the unknown. I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t concerned about how I felt making this commitment. I realized the true effect of this work based on how I felt the night before I was to serve in the clinic. I went from worrying about what would happen on days of service to anticipating them most as part of my weekly routine.
What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how will you carry it with you once your initial year as a Fellow draws to a close?
I’ve always admired people who sacrifice personal gain for something greater then themselves. Altruism and intrinsic motivation are especially hard concepts to understand. One can know the difference between doing good and doing bad, or perhaps being neutral, but to invest in an action that doesn’t carry a tangible benefit is understanding the essence of good will. Albert Schweitzer’s legacy is the embodiment of this principle.
In this respect, I view his accomplishments as representative someone who has evolved higher needs. How many of us have transcended the lure and power of material gain? Even in the face of having served our communities, are we willing to make ultimate sacrifices?
As my year as a Fellow draws to a close, I want to be able to challenge myself with these questions. I pride myself on the fact that I invest a lot of energy in personal development that isn’t purely guided by personal gain, but am also drastically humbled by those that have achieved a greater understanding of what it is to serve humanity. People like Albert Schweitzer.
ASF’s North Carolina program was founded in 1994, and is currently supported in large part by a generous grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. The Trust funded the Fellowship’s HCBU recruitment expansion, and is supporting Stovall and eight of this year’s other 26 North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows. Each is partnering with a local agency and devoting more than 200 hours of service—click here for details on the North Carolina Fellows’ projects, and click here to read more about ASF’s partnership with the Trust.