Justin Willis has known since adolescence that he would commit his life to serving those less fortunate than he.
“Both of my parents are in education, which lends itself to social justice,” says Willis, now age 26. “They encouraged me to do social justice work from a young age.”
While still a middle school and high school student in Federal Way, Washington, Willis participated in service learning projects through his church, working with migrant farmers in Bellingham, helping out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and working with poor families in Mexico.
As an undergraduate at Seattle University (SU), a school he chose in large part because of its commitment to social justice, Willis taught math to students in a nearby elementary school where 96 percent of students live in poverty.
Willis studied biology and general sciences at SU, in preparation for medical school. He knew that he wanted to do a year of service before applying to med school, but he wasn’t sure where. When a former SU student came back to campus and gave a talk about his experiences as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest volunteer with Central City Concern’s Recuperative Care Program (RCP), Willis knew he had found a match.
“I thought ‘this is exactly what I want to do,’” Willis recalls, “work with homeless people in a sort of medical setting.”
In addition to the opportunity to work at RCP, Willis was excited about living with seven other like-minded individuals in a JVC Northwest house and walking through their volunteer journey together.
Willis worked as a patient liaison with RCP in 2012-13, helping clients navigate the health care system, interviewing them at the hospital, getting them established at CCC’s Old Town Clinic, moving them into the RCP facility and helping them transition from there into more permanent housing. He also held weekly case-management drop-in sessions to support patients once they left RCP.
Willis admits that one of the biggest initial challenges of working at RCP was his naivety about people who are experiencing homelessness in their daily lives.
“I came in wanting to make a difference and it was tough when that didn’t happen. I really had to understand that changes come slowly and in small steps,” he says.
As the year progressed, Willis did learn to appreciate the positive changes he and the staff at RCP helped their patients make, such as moving into transitional or permanent housing. He says that the entire RCP community was genuinely affected when good things happened.
Now a third-year student at University of Washington School of Medicine, Willis has continued his commitment to serving low-income communities. In his first two years of medical school, he volunteered and worked as clinic lead at Aloha Inn in Seattle, which provides housing to formerly homeless people. This year he made sure to get rotations in areas with impoverished populations, including one in rural Wyoming and another at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, a Level One Trauma Center serving five states.
Willis plans to go into pediatrics, working with underserved children and their parents to help prevent the adverse childhood events that are most likely to lead to drug use, poverty and homelessness.
Wherever he ends up, Willis will take with him many profound experiences from his days at RCP.
He says, “I learned the importance of not judging and not having preconceived notions about anyone I interact with. By far the most rewarding aspect was just being in the RCP building and talking to patients and hearing the path they had in their lives. Everyone there has incredible stories.”
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