"Being a Schweitzer Fellow is an honor because it means that people believe in our potential to effect change and impact our society in a positive way," says Navid Pourtaheri (pictured above right, with Melodi Javid).

In October, we introduced you to Melodi Javid and Navid Pourtaheri—Schweitzer Fellows from Duke School of Medicine who helped to raise $1,400 for Durham, NC-area charities through an event series called “Navigating the Health Care System as an Unfunded Patient: Perspectives From Durham’s Trenches.”

But these two Schweitzer Fellows were just getting started. Over the past several months, they’ve launched “Duke Med Elementary”—a Schweitzer project that’s aimed, in Javid’s words, at inspiring “Durham Public School students to take charge of their physical and mental health and hopefully spread their newfound knowledge to their peers, families, and larger community.”

Read on to find out about the duo’s inspiration for “Duke Med Elementary,” a series of weekend conferences focused on interactive cardiovascular and nutrition education that Javid and Pourtaheri hope will have lasting impact.

“We hope that this project will help increase our community’s health literacy and its members’ ability to make better health choices early on,” Javid says. “If we get these kids hooked on science in the meantime, that’s just a plus!”

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Navid: Two years ago, as a first-year medical student at Duke, I gathered some of my classmates to host a lunch for a group of elementary students who were coming to campus with a mentor of mine, David Stein. We talked to the students about life as a medical student and shared with them some of the things that we had recently learned.

The kids asked great questions, and were excited to interact with us and play with the bones, skulls, and other learning supplies that we brought along. The medical students and elementary school students had a great time. For weeks, emails of praise arrived from the kids, their teachers, and the medical students involved, all asking when they could do this again.

Based on a variety of suggestions, I decided to help create a student group that would host a more structured experience with volunteers from future classes of first year medical students. Last year, forty volunteers from the new first-year class were able to host several lunches that reached 200 elementary students from three Durham public schools, and Melodi was their president.  This year, Melodi and I are excited to expand the program and create this new experience for fourth graders through the Schweitzer Fellowship.

Melodi: During orientation week, while I was enjoying the beginning of my medical school career on a beautiful campus, we took a service trip to a local elementary school.  The instructors expressed how much they appreciated our involvement, and I decided that I would find a way to stay involved with the elementary school community.

When Navid approached our class with his idea about Duke Med Elementary, I knew it was the perfect public service opportunity for me to take my current studies in medicine and turn them into a way to give back to the community.

From this experience, we found that the structure of our current program does not allow enough time to answer all of the wonderful questions that were brought up by the students, and that many of them would appreciate and benefit from a more in-depth, personalized discussion of health topics.

We decided that in continuing this program, it would be wonderful to design weekend conferences for smaller groups of students to learn more about the process of scientific inquiry and importance of improving their health goals.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Melodi: I believe that our weekend conferences will inspire Durham Public School students to take charge of their physical and mental health and hopefully spread their newfound knowledge to their peers, families, and larger community. We hope that this project will help increase our community’s health literacy and its members’ ability to make better health choices early on. If we get these kids hooked on science in the meantime, that’s just a plus!

Navid: I agree. I also hope that the skills of scientific inquiry that the kids will develop during these conferences will inspire them to pursue higher education, to continue to ask good questions, and to know where to look to find the answers. Helping these kids learn about their health and giving them the skills to teach themselves and make informed decisions will help them for the rest of their lives.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Navid: I think that obesity as a result of over-eating and a sedentary lifestyle has been the most pressing preventable cause of illness that I have noticed in my clinical year as a medical student. The combination of heart disease, diabetes, and weakened immune systems that may result from a lifetime of poor lifestyle choices seemed to be on almost everyone’s problem list on the medicine service in the hospital.

Melodi: I agree with Navid. We believe that the issue of obesity in our society is most effectively managed by increasing the health literacy of our youngest members before poor lifestyle habits are formed. By giving young minds the tools to make smart lifestyle choices early on with regards to diet and exercise, and encouraging them to share this knowledge with their families, they will be able to change the health profile of future generations.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

Melodi: Our last weekend conference had an attendance of only three fourth graders, which came as a shock to us because of the excitement that students and teachers initially showed for our program. From this experience, we learned that even a great program can fall through the cracks and go unnoticed.

We now pitch the idea to the kids themselves, meeting with them in person for a ‘pep rally’ type introduction to the program. In the following weeks, we stay on top of the teachers to remind the students to return permission slips. This is doing wonders for our attendance! There are so many programs that students and teachers are faced with, that it is easy to forget about any one of them. The same is true for many federal and local health assistance programs that families in need are unaware of. Creating resources for others is one thing, but we also need to advocate for them, otherwise they will be useless to society.

Navid: I am surprised by how easily the kids get what we’re teaching them about diet and exercise, and by the great questions they are asking. I thought this information would be completely foreign to them, but times have changed. I never put any thought into what I ate as a kid, and I think nutrition facts became popular only when I was in high school. I also don’t remember learning about the human body and diet when I was an elementary school student!

Their teachers say that they are now teaching kids about these topics in their schools. I am sure that some of them are learning these things at home too. It is wonderful to see how society is adapting to the problems that are currently affecting it, like obesity and heart disease. Awareness is going up and we want to help increase it. I am glad, because these efforts will help future generations make more informed decisions about their health.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Navid: Being a Schweitzer Fellow is an honor because it means that people believe in our potential to effect change and impact our society in a positive way. Addressing the health needs of the underserved is a key element of being a Schweitzer Fellow that will always be a part of our practice in medicine, because it is often the less fortunate who present to the hospital with the most complex set of health and psychosocial needs.

Melodi: Being a Schweitzer Fellow is also a significant responsibility because it means that we are role models for not only those who we are serving but also for our peers. We hope that our work will inspire our peers to come up with their own special ways of engaging with their community and impacting positive change.

Javid and Pourtaheri are Schweitzer Fellows in North Carolina. Click here to read more about The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Javid and Pourtaheri it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Javid and Pourtaheri’s efforts to improve their community’s health literacy, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

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