What started off as a small project among a trio of friends providing blood pressure screening opportunities for the homeless has earned a pre-med student statewide recognition and a feature in the national business magazine, Forbes.
For his work establishing a non-profit organization, Hearts for the Homeless, Andrew Aboujaoude, a third-year student at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, was awarded the Florida Campus Compact Student Excellence in Service Award last month. The award recognizes university students for outstanding service to Florida’s communities.
“This award is a testament to what we do,” Aboujaoude said. “It represents the good wholehearted work and team ethic of those around me. It’s also, for the homeless community, a testament that we have not forgotten them and helps spread awareness that their wellbeing is a very important issue.”
Hearts for the Homeless was also recently featured in Forbes magazine for their work to warn the homeless ahead of Hurricane Irma’s arrival in September.
The project began three years ago, when Andrew Aboujaoude and two of his friends, Alexis Ghersi and Jennifer Carvel, were volunteering to serve food to the homeless.
“A homeless man was telling us about his life, how his kid had died and how he suffered a heart attack,” Aboujaoude said. “He had gotten dragged down in bills and ended up here. As we were talking to him, a car came right by, the passenger rolled down the window and egged us.”
“We all stood staring at each other for a couple seconds in disbelief about what had just happened. We were in shock because someone had just tried to assault us. And the homeless man continued to talk, uninterrupted, as if nothing happened. That’s when a fuse got lit.”
While looking for ways to help, Aboujaoude and his friends learned that hypertension and cardiac disease were leading causes of death among the homeless. Connecting with a local church that gives free meals to the homeless, they began to provide blood pressure screening opportunities and general heart health education to the homeless population in downtown Orlando. Those who need medical attention were given information to connect with Grace Medical Home.
“Most homeless people are just trying to find their next meal; health is secondary,” Aboujaoude said. “So we came up with a plan to provide free, easily accessible blood pressure screening opportunities at food shares, so when people came out to eat, either before, after or during, they would gravitate to our table and take a blood pressure test while they wait.”
What started as a trio has now grown to a group of close to 300 volunteers who serve the community twice a week. Hearts for the Homeless has also expanded to other universities in Florida, serving communities in Gainesville, Tampa, Miami and Tallahassee. Aboujaoude is now focusing his efforts on enlisting even more schools around the nation to join him in serving the indigent.
“We don’t often take the time to listen to their stories. They are people just like me and you who rolled the dice and got a bad roll in life.”
At the Burnett school, Aboujaoude still manages to maintain a 4.0 GPA and is a member of the UCF Burnett Honors College and the LEAD Scholars Academy. He also conducts undergraduate research on malaria.
He is currently interviewing for medical school, as he wants to channel his passion for helping others into a career as a physician.
“I’ve just always wanted to fix the world around me. There are so many issues we have, so much negativity and destruction, and I feel like the role of the physician is to do the exact opposite – to heal, fix and mend wounds and make everyone happy.”
“As a physician I will be doing work that would restore families to happiness and that’s important to me to be able to do that because I’ve seen my family lose people and it affects the whole family dynamic. So to be that person who can put the family dynamic back together by saving lives, that’s why I want to become a doctor.”
For now, there is no greater reward than knowing his team is making an impact in the community.
“The fact that we are walking out there and seeing people and changing lives and making people happy every Sunday and Tuesday – that is making an impact.”
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