Zoe Chaves: My service, myself

Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

When I was five years old, my mother took me to see a primary care physician who understood that families need basic resources like food and shelter to be healthy. He found out during that first session that we were uninsured and living on a family friend’s pull-out couch. Though he only had one other employee at his practice and a long list of patients to see, my doctor did what he could to address our basic needs. He ripped up the check my mother gave him to pay for the exam, and, when my acceptance to Brown was accompanied by a financial aid offer that didn’t cover enough costs, my doctor connected me to a scholarship opportunity that has made these past four years possible.

When I first arrived on campus, I had a strong desire to repay my doctor’s generosity by doing service or volunteer work myself. I found my outlet when I attended a Health Leads Providence informational session at the end of my first year. When I heard about Health Leads’ model of connecting patients to basic resources, and its approach to working with families based on respect, I had an ”aha” moment. I understood that the incredible, wrap-around care I had received from my doctor was an exception to the rule. I understood that all families need and deserve this comprehensive form of health care, and I understood what I could do as an undergrad to make my good fortune a reality for other families.

In helping Providence families access basic resources, I discovered how I could be most effective. I once met a disabled mother whose utilities had been shut off for reasons she couldn’t understand because she couldn’t speak English. I called her service provider and we were relieved to learn that her utilities had been cut off accidentally. The man on the phone told me that he would be happy to send someone to restore her services — in three days. This is where my Health Leads training came in handy. Relying on my powers of persuasion, I told him that if the company hadn’t made a thoughtless error, her utilities wouldn’t be off at all. I told him that my client relies on a cane to get around, and that I would hate for there to be any liability issues if she fell. My client’s services were restored by 6 p.m. that day.

If we open our eyes and extend our hands across sectors, across generations, across neighborhoods, we can find every resource and skill needed to fix the most pressing challenges that Rhode Islanders are facing. We can take advantage of human resources like an undergrad who just won’t take no for an answer and really wants to do good work for this community. Or we can take advantage of resources like the dedication of a devoted mother, who will go to four clothing banks in order to secure a winter coat for her children.

Health Leads helped me find my place at Brown. When I got here as a freshman, I was filled with insecurities and doubts. I kept asking, “Why me? Why do I deserve all this? How did my life change so much and so quickly?” But in transforming my personal experiences into action, those questions have changed. I now ask, “Why not me?” and “How can I turn my privilege into opportunities for others?”

My doctor’s service is what led me to Brown. My service is what will lead me forward as I graduate from Brown, step by step through the Van Wickle Gates.

Zoe Chaves is graduating with an AB in Architectural Studies and will be staying in Providence for the next two years through a fellowship with Venture for America.