Environmental Schweitzer Fellow Beth Koh

Environmental Schweitzer Fellow Beth Koh

Environmental Schweitzer Fellow Beth Koh is working with students at Pressley Ridge Day School in Greensburg, Pennsylvania on a program that brings together physical fitness, healthy food, and mindfulness. A medical student at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Koh’s program encompasses the osteopathic notion that being healthy constitutes a total well-being of the body, mind, and spirit.

ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

BK: Last year, Steven Phillips, a member of the 2011 Environmental Pittsburgh Scweitzer Fellowship cohort, came to present to my class about his project. It involved improving overall health and fitness for the special education students at Pressley Ridge Day School in Greensburg, Pennsylvania through the use of the Railyard exercise equipment program. He was looking for someone to continue his project for the following year and immediately, I knew I wanted to do it. I was drawn to the goal of the project, the opportunity for community service, and especially the population. I had been a special education teacher in Washington, DC for two years before becoming a medical student, and had been looking for a way to get back in the classroom. The Schweitzer Fellowship seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my old life as a teacher with my new life as a student of medicine while also addressing important issues about the health and environment. I decided to take on Steven’s existing project, adding to it by incorporating two of my other interests — yoga and food. The final project that I developed centered around the osteopathic notion that the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit with the Railyard exercise system to help the students build healthy bodies; a fruits and veggies garden to help them build healthy minds; and weekly yoga sessions to help them build healthy spirits.

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

BK: It’s not that I hope all of the students at Pressley Ridge start exercising every day, that they all go home and start backyard gardens, or that they become yoga masters. Instead, I hope that through my project, students learn the value and power of a community. To me, raising a healthy generation is about instilling in the youth the realization that power comes in numbers. Everything I do with the students involves working with others or in a team of some sort because together, we really can achieve more. We can work together to plant community gardens to clean up the earth, we can work together to spread knowledge about staying healthy, and we can work together to stay motivated to be good to our bodies. By emphasizing this notion, we can continue to promote health by creating an overall culture of awareness. Recently, my focus has been on strongly recruiting my colleagues at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine to apply for a Schweitzer Fellowship, and especially to continue the project that Steven and I have worked so hard to develop. Having someone continue my project would be the best way for this idea of community health to spread and continue, even after the completion of my Schweitzer project.

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

BK: Definitely obesity. As many of us are aware, trends show that people are struggling with obesity at younger and younger ages. Our First Lady, Michelle Obama, is on the right track by targeting her Let’s Move program toward children because the younger we start educating the youth, the bigger impact it will have on our future. I think the real problem, though, lies in making healthy foods affordable. It is too easy for a child coming home from school to stop by the corner store where the shelves are stocked with beef jerky, snack cakes, and dried pork rinds not only because of the convenient location of the store, but also because those snacks are affordable. It is too easy for the single mother on a limited budget who works at McDonalds to bring home left over fast food to feed her family because it is costs her nothing. I would like to start seeing more affordable, healthier food options in our local stores, schools, and vending machines. There has to be a way to make these items available to everyone and through the environmental aspect of my project, I am hoping that people will start finding a solution to this problem by planting gardens.

ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

BK: It is most surprising to me the impact my cohort members have had on me. I knew by doing my Schweitzer project that I would encounter amazing and brilliant people, but I had no idea how much I would come to respect and rely on my cohort members. At times, I feel like the monthly meetings could not have come at worse timing, falling right before exams or in the middle of a million other things, but I always leave the meetings having totally forgotten, for a brief moment, the other stresses in my life. During the meetings my cohort members and I discuss ideas and brainstorm solutions. We laugh, we cry, and we challenge. The time I have spent with my cohort members has been truly great and I am most thankful that they are there to support me. Being around these like-minded people has been inspiring and valuable.

ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?

BK: Being a Schweitzer Fellow means making a commitment and dedication to serving others. Sometimes, when I feel like I’ve been in the corner of a coffee shop hunched over books for what seems like weeks, I find myself questioning my decision of coming to medical school. Does it ever get better? I wonder. But if there is anything being a Schweitzer Fellow has done to help me through this self discovery of what I want to make of my life, it is that I have affirmed my passion for helping. Through my project, I’ve been able to feel present. It allows me to focus less on what the future will bring and more on what I am doing now. Now, I am helping a group of students be healthier. Now, I am making a difference in someone’s life. Now, I am exploring the impact the environment can have on health. As a Fellow for Life, I will keep this notion at the forefront of my thoughts and intentions. If I remain true to my commitment to serve, I will always be able to find meaning in the things I do.

Click here to learn more about the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.