Project BEAM Shines

Kwame Awuku was born in Ghana and immigrated to New Jersey at age eight. “My parents were always sick, unfortunately, and I was the kid who wanted to find out what was wrong.”

Now a fourth-year medical student at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Awuku is empowering at-risk teenagers to navigate the complex world of health and healthcare. In 2016, he founded Project BEAM (Beyond Education Academics and Medicine) as part of his National Medical Fellowship and the nonprofit that he launched two years earlier: O’Darah Outreach. He and his peers visit the same inner city Newark classes for a week each month, breaking into small groups where conversations can flourish. Topics range from exercise to diabetes, vaccines, mental health and even Vital Signs 101.

“I’ve been surprised how engaged they are and how many questions they ask,” Awuku says. “They help us educators open our eyes to what people are thinking about and how to be prepared to answer those concerns. For example, a lot didn’t know asthma isn’t curable, just manageable.”

Around 60 NJMS students have participated, some as volunteers and others through the Community Engaged Service Learning (CESL) elective program. Project BEAM began at Great Oaks Legacy Charter High School and in 2019 will expand to Science Park and Weequahic in Newark, as well as Forest Street School in Orange, NJ.

Awuku is applying for residencies, which may take him away from the area. But the initiative is already uplifting new leaders. Its advisor — Dr. Karma Warren, an assistant professor of emergency medicine — says, “As long as I’m part of the board, we’ll keep it around. Project BEAM gives students firsthand knowledge of the challenges communities like this face. Connecting with the patient population they serve helps them develop into humble, well-rounded physicians.”

And the positive impact goes beyond this two-way flow of information and empathy. “A lot of these ninth-graders don’t have role models who look like them,” Dr. Warren notes. “Now they’re seeing medical students achieving goals and volunteering to work with them. Project BEAM encourages young people to raise their dreams and goals.”

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