For them, this is personal.
It becomes personal when kids in your church go hungry, when the children you teach miss school to see their murdered friends' funerals, when a cousin dies in childbirth overseas, when your friends in college don't earn enough money to buy food.
Esosa “Sosa” Adah, Tameka Carmichael, Morgan Davis, Nneamaka Ezekwe, Richelle Jefferson, Tylere Nunnery, Michelle Wheeler: For most, or all, of them, the consequences of poverty have occupied their pews, stalked their classrooms, destroyed their loved ones, and, in Jefferson's case, invaded her home, where her mother skipped meals to make ends meet.
Students who were awarded RESULTS fellowships meet in late June with U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, center, R-Mississippi, in his Washington, D.C. office are, from left, Wheeler, Adah, Carmichael, Davis, Ezekwe, Jefferson and Nunnery. Cochran is the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Not content to take umbrage, they decided to take action, joining forces against their personal enemy by volunteering their time to a poverty-fighting advocacy organization with a promising name: RESULTS.
“I don't have to wait until I'm a doctor to help people who are living in difficult situations,” said Jefferson, a second-year medical student. “This is something I can be part of now.”
Also taking part are her fellow medical students Adah, Carmichael, Ezekwe, Davis and Wheeler, along with Nunnery, a second-year dental student.
On the strength of RESULTS fellowships, and with the support of their respective schools, these students traveled to Washington, D.C., in late June to attend the organization's conference, take a crash course on influencing health-care legislation and other causes, and get in some face-to-face lobbying time with several members of Mississippi's U.S. congressional delegation or members of the lawmakers' staffs.
“All of them have really excelled at the program so far,” said Carly Pildis, program director for the nonprofit, D.C.-based RESULTS. “I wouldn't have begrudged them wanting to spend summer on the beach, but they devoted a lot of their free time to this. They brought a tremendous amount of energy.”
It was Ezekwe who introduced her classmates to RESULTS, having first met some of its administrators during an American Medical Student Association convention in March.
“Poverty and health issues go hand-in-hand,” said Ezekwe, explaining her interest in anti-poverty advocacy. “If you're poor, you're less likely to be healthy. There needs to be a better and closer relationship between Congress and those responsible for the nation's health care.”
Ezekwe hopes to start a RESULTS campus chapter here, involving students from all of the schools. There is already a chapter in Oxford, which the UMMC contingent worked with in D.C., and the Starkville area has a RESULTS volunteer, according to the organization's website. A total of 11 students from Mississippi secured the one-year RESULTS fellowships, which covered travel and hotel costs for the conference.
At UMMC, the Office of Student Affairs in the School of Medicine took care of the medical students' conference registration fees.
“It's been very rewarding to see our students' involvement with RESULTS,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, the school's chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs.
“What better way to make a difference in the lives of Mississippians than through improved access to education, basic health care and anti-poverty programs?”
RESULTS fellowship awardees meet with John "Trey" Baker III, left, aide to 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, in Washington, D.C. The students are, from left, Carmichael, Wheeler and Adah.
To boost that access, RESULTS fellows hope to influence the political decisions of their elected representatives -for instance, urging them to protect from proposed budget cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps low-income families buy groceries.
“I have friends and family who have been on SNAP, really hard-working people,” Nunnery said. “Some of my friends who were students at Southern Miss depended on SNAP. They had a job, and apartment, a car note. But at the end of the month there was no money for food.”
Many of the UMMC students are also working to save key provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which reduces or refunds taxes for working people with low to moderate incomes.
Such assistance resonates with Jefferson, whose single mother worked as an accountant, but still struggled because of the financial debt she faced following her divorce.
“It wasn't until I was older that I found out that my mom wouldn't eat dinner to save money for us,” Jefferson said.
As a one-time public school teacher, Jefferson saw how poverty affected other children as well, children caught up in a milieu of violence that ended their friends' lives.
“I remember asking one girl, who was about 14, what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Jefferson said. “She told me she just wanted to make it to 20.”
Wheeler, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta, a region with high rates of poverty, hypertension and obesity, attended church with children who hadn't eaten breakfast. “They weren't getting fed unless they got reduced or free lunches at school,” Wheeler said.
“There should be more of us in Mississippi fighting poverty than in any other state. When you join RESULTS, they teach you how to make a difference.”
Among the students who were awarded fellowships to the RESULTS International Conference in Washington, D.C., in June are Nneamaka Ezekwe, left, and Morgan Davis, who visited the U.S. Capitol in the midst of a dome renovation project.
For Ezekwe's part, she is more focused on making a difference across the globe, compelled by a family tragedy in Nigeria, the home of many of her relatives.
“A cousin of mine experienced preeclampsia in the middle of delivering her baby,” she said. “It was necessary to keep her blood pressure low, but the doctor was unsure of himself. Any nurse or doctor in the United States could have talked him through it on the phone. But my cousin died that day, and her child died minutes later.
“RESULTS has sponsored the Reach Every Mother and Child Act to end these kinds of preventable deaths. So I do have an emotional attachment to this.”
Ezekwe and the other fellows are invited to return to the nation's capital In March 2017 and follow up with the congressional delegation - to see what their representatives have, or haven't, done.
“They were all eager to talk to us in June,” she said. “Most senators and representatives are receptive to talking to their constituents in person; they don't get to do that a lot.”
They are probably especially eager to hear from constituents like those from UMMC, Pildis said.
“People in Congress like to hear from young people. And it's hard to convey accurately how much the opinion of people in the medical profession means to them.”
Democrats and Republicans alike were open to their message, Nunnery said.
The RESULTS fellows will repeat that message throughout the coming months, through letter-writing campaigns to Congressmen, by arranging more meetings with the congressional delegation, by writing letters-to-the-editor to newspapers that these representatives' constituents read, and more.
“When those who have a future in the medical field talk about poverty, it's a really compelling voice,” Pildis said. “Some have spent time abroad volunteering. Some have come to the United States after living abroad.
“Doctors and medical students bring an expertise to the message that a professional organizer can't bring. I don't know how TB works, I've never treated it.
“But when someone who has been on a medical mission to Haiti says, 'It makes me upset that people can't get treated for TB, can't get the kind of health care that we take for granted,' that is a voice people pay attention to.”
For more information about RESULTS, go to www.results.org/realchange. For details about joining the UMMC group, contact Nneamaka Ezekwe at email@example.com.