Dr. Albert Schweitzer once said that “anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly if they even roll a few more upon it.”
Schweitzer Fellow for Life Ali
learned that lesson well during his 2010-2011 fellowship year.
Arastu has two big passions: medicine and wilderness. As a Schweitzer Fellow he sought to combine these two loves into a week-long wilderness program for at-risk teens that incorporated yoga, meditation, and health education.
It was a simple idea, or so he thought. But Arastu soon encountered several stones on the path to launching his program, “Health, Yoga and the Great Outdoors.”
He approached numerous schools and organizations in search of a community partner. There were no takers. “A lot of these partnerships eventually fell through just because of my lack of understanding of the extent of the bureaucracy involved,” recalls Arastu, who was a second-year medical student at the University of Southern California (USC) at the time.
Schools were concerned about the potential liability involved taking kids deep into the wilderness—inaccessible by phone or other means of communication—with helicopter rescue being the only way out if a student was injured or otherwise incapable of completing the program.
Arastu finally joined forces with a charter high school in Hawthorne, CA, located in the largely underserved South Los Angeles. Spending much of his fellowship year simply learning to understand and navigate the bureaucratic process, Arastu eventually resolved all of the liability issues. Health, Yoga and the Great Outdoors finally had the green light from USC and a community partner. There was just one other stone on his path: a lack of money.
“I needed between $10,000 and $15,000 to pull off the trip at the level I wanted to do it,” says Arastu.
So, he put on the suit he wore to his sister’s wedding and started knocking on the doors of funders in Los Angeles, ultimately securing a $15,000 grant last summer from a foundation.
Soon Arastu would actually be leading a group of inner city teens on a retreat in California’s High Sierra region.
He credits the ASF community for helping him persevere.
“The Fellowship year for me was more of having the fire stoked constantly by fellowship directors and some of the Fellows for Life on our advisory board,” he says. “Hearing what they’d done and the obstacles they overcame and knowing that it’s not going to be easy, but it will happen if you just keep on persisting.
“Then I had all my other co-Fellows,” he adds. “It was like, your fire is constantly stoked, everyone has such cool things going on and they’re so passionate about addressing the social determinants of health. It was really something that I became inspired by.”
His week in the wilderness with 17 inner-city high school students was equally inspiring. Though they struggled resentfully through the long hike to the campsite, Arastu watched as they opened up to the wonders of the natural world, embraced his yoga regimen, and absorbed his messages of health and wellness over the course of the trip.
“At the end of this week, they were crying when they had to leave,” he recalls. “Almost every kid was in tears.”
What makes his program different from other wilderness programs aimed at underserved youth, says Arastu, is his emphasis on health and wellness.
“You have them out of their environment where they’re not passing liquor stores and fast food chains on their way home,” he says. “They’re away from the peer pressure of drugs and sex and all of that. It’s incredible how receptive they were to learning about nutrition, learning about sex ed, about eating right—and how receptive they were to doing yoga twice a day for an hour each time, and making food and understanding where their food came from.”
Arastu, an aspiring pediatrician and recent med school graduate, will be leading another group of students through Health, Yoga and the Great Outdoors this summer.
In addition to learning that accomplishing good works can sometimes be a difficult process, Arastu learned another valuable lesson through his fellowship experience that he says will influence his medical career: the importance of the physician’s role in the community, advocating for the health of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.
“Being a doctor in a hospital is fantastic and necessary and is something I’ll always do,” says Arastu. “But the fellowship instilled in me that my job as a physician doesn’t stop as soon as I walk out of the hospital’s doors.”
Watch Ali Arastu’s TEDx Talk and learn more about the passion that fuels his commitment to practicing medicine with an eye toward social justice.