By Chris Bavender
For 23-year-old Lauren Stokes of Carmel, what started as a gap year project between undergraduate and medical school has quickly turned into an experience that is impacting her future career as a doctor. Stokes is a volunteer with Mercy Volunteer Corps. For the next year she will work in Savannah, Ga., at St. Mary’s Health Center, a free health clinic for those who don’t qualify for government benefits but still can’t afford health insurance.
“My time here has reinforced the importance of primary care and the many barriers people face when trying to obtain access to health care. You never really know what a person is facing when they come into the clinic or what they have lived through,” Stokes said. “We strive to treat every person that walks into the clinic with compassion and respect and give them the tools they need to take care of themselves.”
Stokes, a Carmel High School graduate, received her degree in biochemistry and molecular biology in May from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.
“During college I also took classes on health psychology and health equity. In these classes we talked about the complexity of health care including social determinants of health,” she said. “Going into my gap year I knew that I wanted some real-life experience in the healthcare field where I could witness first-hand the things I had been learning about in these classes. This is what led me to Mercy Volunteer Corps.”
Mercy Volunteer Corps was founded in 1978 by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas as a lay ministry working to address the needs of people who are poor and marginalized. Since 1978, MVC has placed more than 900 women and men in more than 140 different service sites in 24 states, South America, and Central America.
“We work to engage our volunteers in a mission that is greater than themselves, a mission that recognizes the value and dignity of each person they meet throughout their time as an MVC volunteer,” said Elizabeth MacNeal, Communication Specialist with MVC. “Our purpose in doing this is to cultivate future leaders and advocates for people who are economically disadvantaged, sick, and uneducated. Our hope is that our volunteers will live and work in solidarity and community with these people not just for their year of service but throughout their lives.”
MacNeal said the opportunity for volunteers to “live in community with other volunteers is a unique aspect of MVC.”
“Living in community provides volunteers with an environment that cultivates discussion based on their volunteer experiences,” she said. “In particular, community members engage in spirituality nights as well as events with the larger Mercy Community.”
While Savannah is a beautiful city and a big tourist attraction, Stokes said many live in extreme poverty beyond the borders of the historic district. She said she believes St. Mary’s offers a unique service to those residents with its holistic approach to health care.
“In addition to the nurse practitioners that guide each patient’s medical care, every patient has the opportunity to see a social worker and health educator,” Stokes said. “My role here is kind of a catch-all. I work closely with Lisa Womack, the nurse manager at St. Mary’s, and I help make referrals to specialists and finding resources in the community for our patients. I am also working on a couple projects that are part of our grant with Armstrong University here in Savannah. We are focusing on improving the quality of care for our patients diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, and depression.”
Stokes will finish at St. Mary’s next July. She plans to attend medical school after that, carrying with her, she said, “the experiences and the stories of the patients” she has helped serve.