Published August 23, 2021
Bernard Okai’s assignment for the UB Medical Student Day of Service proved to be near and dear to his heart.
Okai and fellow first-year medical students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences helped make beds for Sleep in Heavenly Peace, a nonprofit in Clarence that constructs and delivers beds and bedding for Buffalo families in need.
Okai can relate.
“I didn’t have a bed as a child,” said Okai, who grew up in the West African nation of Ghana and came to the U.S. in 2016 when his family settled in Rochester. “I had to sleep on the floor with my cousins in a small space.”
While medical students don’t pick their Day of Service assignments, Okai, who earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from SUNY Brockport, was happy to end up where he did.
“I connect with this personally,” he said. “I know how it feels to grow up without a bed. Volunteering here and helping other people feels great.”
Okai was one of a record 132 students who helped make improvements to the community and got to know their classmates during the seventh annual UB Medical Student Day of Service on July 31. Most were first-year students, with the rest upperclass students. Eight faculty and staff members also took part.
Salma Attai, a second-year medical student and one of the orientation leaders, was one of the volunteers at Pelion Community Garden at City Honors School in Buffalo.
Volunteers at the site removed pests and weeds, picked fruit and spread mulch, among other gardening maintenance tasks.
She used the day to get to know some of the incoming students a little better before their official orientation.
“I’ve bonded with a few of the incoming students. I’m really passionate about mentorship, being a first-generation college and graduate student,” said Attai, who earned her undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences from UB. “To be able to illuminate the path for somebody else is really rewarding for me.”
Last year’s Day of Service didn’t take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she welcomed its return.
“It’s nice to be out and about with other people on such a beautiful day,” she said. “The opportunity to spend a Saturday in service of a community that I love and has given so much to me is also incredibly gratifying.”
“It’s been a nice experience. I’m meeting just about all of these people for the first time. It’s been a nice way to bond,” said first-year student Cameron DeMott, who earned his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Rochester. He spent the morning weeding, removing unwanted insects from trees and bushes, and picking elderberries at Pelion Community Garden.
“The vast majority of students chose to participate today,” DeMott said. “I’m glad to see that a lot of people took advantage of it.”
First-year student Michelle Qiu agreed.
“It’s really fun. I’ve never built anything before, so this is a new experience for me,” said Qiu, who spent the day building beds at Sleep in Heavenly Peace.
“I’ve never met any of my new classmates before,” said Qiu, who also earned her undergraduate degree in neuroscience from the University of Rochester. “This is definitely a good bonding experience.”
In addition to Sleep in Heavenly Peace and Pelion Community Gardens, the volunteers performed cleanup work at four service project sites in Buffalo: Allentown Association, where students weeded and applied mulch; Fruit Belt Coalition, where students organized offices and gardened; Kevin Guest House, where students gardened; and Macedonia Baptist Church, where students beautified the building and gardened.
Participation in the Medical Student Day of Service is not mandatory, but Jacobs School medical students are required to perform 10 hours of community service — a combination of volunteer work and service learning — in each of their preclinical years.
“During their time as medical students over the next four years, there are many ways to get to know their Buffalo community and make a difference in the lives of the individuals they will serve,” said David A. Milling, senior associate dean for student and academic affairs. “We have 180 extremely talented medical students who need to understand and address the social needs of the community, which will ultimately help them become better medical doctors.”
The UB Medical Student Day of Service is sponsored by the Offices of Medical Education and the John A. Wendel Endowment Fund, established by Virginia Wendel.