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LECOM Students Serve by ‘Bridging the Gaps’

Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine students Philip Talarico and Michael de Guzman are not Erie natives, but they’ve embraced LECOM’s home town and are doing their part to make Erie better.

Talarico and de Guzman are from Pittsburgh and Chicago, but they stayed in Erie this summer to participate in Bridging the Gaps, a community service initiative designed to help health professionals and others make a difference in their communities. Through the program, nearly 30 LECOM students devoted seven weeks to working with underserved and economically disadvantaged populations.

Bridging the Gaps has its roots in Philadelphia. The Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, in keeping with its mission of service and responsibility to others, brought Bridging the Gaps to Erie in 1995.

Talarico and de Guzman, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Erie, developed a program designed to help homeless veterans in two primary areas:

Diet and nutrition

Not surprisingly, many of the vets don’t get enough to eat, nor do they eat enough of the “right” foods. Talarico and de Guzman developed a cookbook for them with dishes that are healthy, easy to prepare, and that include items available at food pantries and food banks. The students also attended a ribbon cutting for Emmaus Grove, a community garden on the City of Erie’s eastside. Talarico and de Guzman have been encouraging the veterans to spend a few hours a week volunteering at the garden, which would allow them to receive free produce.

Health and wellness

Talarico and de Guzman also developed an exercise and stretching guide for the veterans, many of whom suffer from diabetes, kidney disease, and respiratory disease. The guide includes relatively simple upper- and lower-body exercises and stretches, such as planks, lunges, and squats, that don’t require expensive equipment. “As medical students, we believe very strongly in a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” Talarico said.

de Guzman has thoroughly enjoyed serving others through Bridging the Gaps. “I didn’t grow up in Erie, but as student at LECOM, I consider it my home now,” he said. “I wanted to give something back and to serve this community because there are people in need.”

Program benefits Voices for Independence

Two other LECOM students participating in Bridging the Gaps, Michael Eden and Joseph Fister, have been working with Voices for Independence, a local nonprofit that strives to improve the quality of life for people with physical disabilities. For Eden and Fister, working with the organization’s clients has been rewarding. “Spending so much time with them has helped me better understand that behind the disability is a person greatly in need of compassion,” Eden said. “I’m very grateful for this experience.”

Making connections

Eden and Fister wanted to help the clients, many of whom are homebound, transition from feeling isolated and marginalized to feeling – and being – independent, a goal in keeping with the mission of Voices for Independence. By having the clients participate in structured activities and by taking a personal interest in them, the students witnessed a transformation. “Feeling connected helped change their outlook on life,” Eden said.

The importance of exercise

Eden and Fister also focused on helping the clients realize that, even though they are limited by their disabilities, they physically are capable of much more than they realize. Thus, Eden and Fister stressed the importance of being active. With the help of the LECOM Medical Fitness & Wellness Center, they organized a health fair for the clients.

‘Not for ourselves, but for others’

Community service is an important aspect of the Mission of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. LECOM’s participation in Bridging the Gaps is one example of how “the community is our campus.”

Sarah McCarthy, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Anatomy, serves as the Director of the program at LECOM. “The program has reinforced for the students the importance of caring for underserved populations,” she said. “By participating, the students aren’t on the outside looking in at people who most need help – they’re working with them hand in hand.”

Bridging the Gaps is also important in that it provides a helping hand to the partnering agencies and organizations. In addition to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Voices for Independence, LECOM students have been working with the Youth Development Center, Saint Mary’s Home of Erie, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Gannondale, Erie DAWN (Dwellings & Advocacy for Women in Need),  Community Shelter Services, YMCA Kids’ Club,  SafeNet, and other local nonprofits.