Paul Abraham, Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Schweitzer Fellow and second-year medical student at UT Southwestern, is deeply passionate about serving others. In his decision to develop a smoking cessation program for the men of Calvert Place Men’s Shelter on the west side of Dallas, Abraham hopes to help stave off not just the physical effects of smoking, but also help the men cope with the significant stress of their daily lives and take a more preventative approach to their health.
Abraham’s choice to serve a population experiencing homelessness is one close to his heart. Previously, he volunteered with MissionYear near downtown Chicago, where he spent 24 hours living as though he was homeless. Abraham elaborated, “Reflecting back on that experience, I still remember how devalued I felt. I would call out asking for change to individuals who wouldn’t acknowledge my existence or would suddenly become so absorbed in their smartphones that I realized that my presence was burdensome to them—it made them feel insecure and unsure of how to respond…No person deserves to feel like they are less than human.”
Paul found Calvert Place in his first few months of medical school. He explained, “I quickly found that many of the men who came into the clinic suffered from COPD, asthma, and other smoking-related illnesses. I talked with the medical director and found out how prevalent smoking was among the men at the shelter and how hard it was for them to quit when the majority of people around them smoked. I knew that I wanted to serve during medical school and felt like jumping into a worthwhile project like this would give meaning to the rigorous and sometimes tedious curriculum of medical school. I plan to serve in similar capacities long-term and felt that there was no reason not to start now!”
In addition to 335 beds and other basic needs, a health clinic, work training, and daily chapel service, Calvert Place also offers a discipleship training program, which leads to transitional housing in its final phase. In order to qualify for transitional housing, the men must not be smokers, a significant hurdle for many participants.
Before beginning his project, Abraham spent time getting to know the men on a more personal basis, playing pool and talking with them about their lives. This personal connection and recognition of a need for a safe space to relax is critical to Abraham. “I have found that one of the best ways that I can help these guys is to simply provide a safe space for them to get away from everyone else for a while, encourage one another, and share about how their week has been,” he explained.
The connection he has fostered also helps the men develop a stronger support system in one another. “I have been amazed by how willing the guys are to be vulnerable with each other and how much they long for brotherly support. Just a few weeks ago, one of the guys who was in my class for the first time told everyone in the room to call him out if he ever started to smoke a cigarette in front of them. Another week, a guy came in and said that he wasn’t quite ready to quit smoking altogether, but that he was going to not smoke at all on Thursdays and requested the others to join him. Stories like that make me excited to continue the work at Calvert Place and lets me know that they need each other’s help to quit,” Abraham elaborated.
“I think that the most beneficial part of the program is the group support. Many of the guys don’t have close friends that they can rely on to help them make the right choices. I hope that my class will foster an environment where their vulnerability is met with compassion and support from other guys who understand where they are coming from and want to see them progress towards their goals,” he continued.
For Abraham, his project is not simply about smoking cessation, but also about helping the men take a proactive, preventative approach to their health and wellbeing. “I know that there are many issues that these guys have to deal with. Smoking is just one of them. My prayer is that they wouldn’t simply quit smoking and then move onto another bad habit. Instead, I hope that they realize that regaining control over their lives requires one faithful step at a time. Smoking cessation is one small way for them to take back ownership of their situation, but it will take several more steps for them to get to where they want to be,” he explained.
Keeping this goal in mind, Abraham’s smoking cessation program is designed to provide participants with skills they can use immediately and in the future. Many of the strategies that he is helping the men incorporate are relaxation techniques, in addition to medication or nicotine patches, recognizing the role that constant stress plays in their lives.
Service plays a significant role in Abraham’s life, both in his academic training and his spiritual life, “My faith challenges me to love God with all my heart and to love my neighbor as myself. The story of the Good Samaritan reminds me that sometimes our neighbor can be someone who is very different than us, but who is hurting and in need of our help. I enjoy working with the homeless because it is a way for me to live out that commandment that Jesus laid out and it teaches me so much about myself as I strive to better the lives of those at the shelter.”
The men of Calvert Place serve as an inspiration to Abraham as well. “Working with the guys has been a great reminder of why I want to be in the field of medicine and has given me so many real life examples of how little things can make such an important difference in people’s lives. It constantly pushes me to put the needs of others before the needs of my own and reminds me that I am so blessed to have good health, the opportunity to study medicine, and to live comfortably,” he said.