Learning to serve

It’s 9:30 on a Friday morning in Houston, Texas. Parkway Place is already buzzing with activity, residents of the senior living community coming and going from the dining room, spring sunshine pouring through the windows, the smell of fresh coffee in the air.

An unassuming hoard of 16 young people enters the community lobby, smiling wide and quietly surveying their surroundings. They wear starched white lab coats, blue scrubs and name badges, with pens stuck neatly in the lab coat pockets. By all respects, they look like nursing professionals.

“Professionals,” however, is a word that won’t officially describe these young people for another 15 years.

These are students from Westside High School’s health science pathway, a magnet program designed for students interested in pursuing medical careers. They visit Parkway Place every other Friday, 16 students in the morning and 14 in the afternoon, to work with residents in assisted living and skilled nursing.

All the students are graduating seniors, 17 or 18 years old, who’ve spent the last four years taking preparation classes like anatomy and physiology, microbiology and pathology. This class is the program’s capstone and requires students to complete observation hours.

“Observing at Parkway Place is a unique experience for the students,” said Monique Taylor, the program’s instructor. “Most of these kids have only seen one side of healthcare. What they see at Buckner is completely different than at hospitals. Here, they see the full circle of life.”

The unique partnership between Parkway Place and the health science program began when Cynthia Patterson, volunteer coordinator for Buckner Hospice, gave a career fair presentation at Houston ISD. Her presentation sparked interest in the Westside students, and they immediately wanted to volunteer.

“It was a win-win for both of us,” Patterson said. “They get observation hours, and we get volunteers full of fresh energy. We’ve already been extremely impressed by their professionalism.”

Like soldiers deployed for duty, once they arrive at the community the students one by one take their assignments. Some go to individual apartments to visit with residents. Others go to common spaces to help with morning activities. They each carry a journal to record what they learn. They’re patient, engaged and respectful, interacting with residents as if they were their own grandparents.

Many of these students, Taylor said, will be first generation college students. They’ll go to school with the expectation of becoming primary providers for their families. Working with Parkway Place, then, is more than a resume booster. It’s a crucial stepping stone.

“There’s a lot riding on them succeeding,” Taylor said. “This program opens their eyes to the different options out there. Most have never seen senior living care. It changes their lives.”

One student, LeiLani Lattimore, knows this is exactly where she wants to be. For as long as she can remember, she’s had a 25-year plan—which begins with attending Cornell University and ends with becoming a neurosurgeon. For her, it’s the direct interaction with Parkway Place residents that’s been most impactful.

“We’ve learned that you have to have patience in the medical field,” Lattimore said. “There are a lot of delicacies that come with geriatric care. You have to have the knowledge and the facts, but you also have to have compassion. It’s really special that we get to see that so clearly here at Buckner.”

Another student, Amenda Khoei, wants to be a pediatrician. While she ultimately wants to end up on the other spectrum of the circle of life she says the experiences she’s gaining at Parkway Place are invaluable.

“This is an opportunity a lot of people don’t have,” Khoei said. “I’m honored and plan to take in as much information as I can about this area of care. You don’t get to see this kind of direct care in hospitals, and I’m excited to learn.”

“This partnership with Westside High is what Buckner is all about,” said Susan Phelps, executive director of Parkway Place. “Buckner exists to serve both vulnerable children and senior adults, and what better way to do that than by engaging a multi-generation partnership with students who otherwise might not have these opportunities? Plus, seeing the way Parkway Place residents light up around these students is a joy. I feel more confident than ever about the future of senior living because of their eagerness to serve.”

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