After her family became homeless when she was a child, B.S. Katherine Davidson-Karlay lived for a time in a homeless shelter with her mother and siblings. Karlay looked up to the shelter volunteers who spent time engaging her in activities and making her family comfortable during a vulnerable time in their lives. She aspired to be like them.
“The volunteers gave my family and I something that we could not give to ourselves,” Karlay recalls. “From this experience, I learned the value of service and became interested in humanitarian efforts here and around the world.”
As a student at Louisiana State University School of Medicine, Karlay heard about the New Orleans Women and Children’s Shelter (NOWS) Outreach Program, a project launched by 2015-’16 Fellows Hunter Hopkins and Samantha Karlin, which provides on-site health education classes and student-run medical clinics to shelter residents.
“I immediately felt compelled to reach back to a system that was so integral in my life,” says Karlay. She began a volunteer stint as the program’s medical student representative.
Her classmate Kathryn DiLosa also volunteered with the NOWS Outreach Program that first year, helping to plan activities for the children and running supply drives and events as the Events & Philanthropy Coordinator. DiLosa so enjoyed her work that she became determined to continue with it despite the demands of her studies.
“A classroom can show me all that I need to be a successful doctor, but the NOWS Outreach Program reminds me of why I chose medicine in the first place,” says DiLosa.
DiLosa and Karlay were eventually chosen as co-directors of the program, roles they are filling as New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows. The program has grown exponentially under their leadership. They broadened the education curriculum to reflect a more holistic approach to health by adding physical activities, a larger mental health component, summer camp, and field trips.
After the NOW shelter director asked them to expand the program to its new shelter, inclusive of men, DiLosa secured a $10,000 grant from Maison Hospitaliere to serve both shelters. As a result, they have more than doubled the population the program is able to serve. Additionally, 2017 marks the first time that former shelter residents have voluntarily returned to attend education sessions and clinics—the surest sign yet that residents value what they are learning and are taking control of their own health and that of their children.
“Getting people to be more proactive about their health and health care is the overall goal of our program,” says DiLosa.
They have seen other signs that they and their students are meeting this important program goal. After Dr. Denise Johnson of the Louisiana Breast and Cervical Health Program led a session on breast cancer and the importance of self-exams last October, a twenty-something resident described an extensive family history of breast cancer and expressed concern that she might have the BRCA gene, but that her fear had been previously dismissed by a doctor who said she was “too young to have breast cancer.” Dr. Johnson stressed the importance of knowing your own body and the cancer risk factors, making the woman more confident in the duty she felt to herself and her children to seek care. The woman was also advised that Medicaid covers BRCA testing in at-risk individuals.
“She’s a perfect example of our program providing knowledge so that anyone can learn to be proactive with their health and the health of their children now and in the future,” DiLosa says.
In another instance, Karlay did a session on “Foods that Fight Disease to teach women about the properties of healthy foods and their abilities to fight cancer, lower cholesterol, lower blood glucose, decrease hypertension, etc. Following the program, the class made smoothies with green vegetables, fruits, seeds, raw honey and coconut water.
“The women were initially very apprehensive about tasting the smoothie because it’s far outside what they typically eat,” Karlay confesses. After tasting it, however, they were much more open to incorporating into their diets.
“One of the women indicated that she would begin using her supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) to buy more healthy foods,” says Karlay. “We were also able to use funds from the grant that we received to provide the ladies with a blender.”
In addition to expanding the program, DiLosa and Karlay have also taken steps to ensure the NOWS Outreach Program will be sustained indefinitely. Aside from the grant funding, they have recruited a pool of over 250 student volunteers from six different LSU professional schools and Xavier Pharmacy School. They have also compiled an extensive list of session leaders that have agreed to return to teach at the shelters.
“After hundreds of hours of work, we successfully organized all the tools and resources that will be needed for the NOWS Outreach Program to run with a minimal budget and effort from the next co-directors,” says DiLosa.
After all of their educating and organizing on behalf of others, DiLosa and Karlay were both astonished at how much they themselves learned through the Fellowship.
“I have learned much more than I imagined that I could in such a short time,” says Karlay, who credits New Orleans Chapter Program Director Sofia Curdumi Pendley for much of her professional growth, along with her cohort of Fellows.
“I have been more deeply inspired by the Fellows and speakers than I have been by anyone in my life because of their courage and skill,” she adds.
DiLosa says meeting the demands of the Fellowship showed her what she’s capable of as both a person and a professional—and that it was invigorating.
“The time I spent working on this project became the necessary break that I needed from studying to keep a level head with the stress of school,” she says. “As a person, I learned that I thrive in a service oriented environment, and that as a leader I can bring together and inspire others, too.”