By Wendy Sarubbi | May 13, 2014 3:21 pm

Growing up near Avon Park FL, Bobby Palmer spent his childhood tagging along with his dad who repaired air conditioners and his grandfather who owned a hardware store. Small-town life revolved around family, community and helping others. And as Palmer prepares to graduate from the UCF College of Medicine on Friday, he is bringing a message of inspiration and motivation to other small town youngsters who might never dream of becoming a doctor.

On Monday, Palmer brought about 40 students from four Highlands County middle schools to UCF’s medical school in Lake Nona to get a first-hand look at what it takes to be a healthcare provider. His message: Follow your dreams, no matter what your circumstances. “I want to give back to the community that raised me,” he said of the effort.

Palmer set up the entire give-back program. He arranged bussing for the two-hour ride from Highlands to South Orlando. He provided tours of the medical school’s state-of-the-art Anatomy Lab and Clinical Skills and Simulation Center. He offered inspirational speakers who talked of their own challenges – and successes – in getting into medical school.

Some of that inspiration came from Kesha Thomas, the mother of a 7th and 5th grader who is a first-year medical student at UCF. “Even though life happens and sometimes dreams gets buried, if you really have a passion for medicine, if your heart is in it, you’ll find a way to do it,” said Thomas, a native of Statesboro, GA.

Palmer had his own unconventional road to medical school. He was fascinated by science and medicine as a child, so his family encouraged him to volunteer in hospitals as early as the 7th grade. He shadowed doctors in high school. He got his AA degree from a community college, now South Florida State College, then his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Wake Forest University.

Before entering UCF’s year-old medical school in 2010, Palmer spent a year in Chile helping to rebuild a small village devastated by a powerful 8.8 magnitude earthquake. The experience opened up his eyes to what he was meant to do.

“It changed my life, my medical experience, and made me passionate about global health,” said Palmer who went on to volunteer at three medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic and head the UCF College of Medicine’s student global health organization.

Palmer said he was lucky to have a supportive family but added that many kids from his hometown don’t realize that they can follow their dreams no matter their income level or background. The goal of Monday’s event, he said, was to give them an idea of the careers that can lie ahead with persistence and hard work.

The rising ninth graders were excited about the College of Medicine’s technology and innovations, including computerized mannequins that react to hundreds of prescription drugs, mimic symptoms and even talk back to doctors in training.

Rosalinda Jaramillio, an Avon Park Middle School student, was already interested in a medical career before the UCF visit but said the demonstrations made her even more inspired. “I want to go to medical school,” she said, “I’m interested in the human body and how it reacts to things.”

After graduation, Palmer will begin his orthopedic surgery residency at the University of Florida in Jacksonville. On Match Day 2014, when he learned he had received his top choice for residency, Palmer cried as he shared the news with fellow students, their families and faculty members. He dedicated his success to his grandfather, who had died the day before and said it was apropos he was going to use tools to fix bones because he had grown up as a hardware store owner’s grandson. He had wanted to stay in Florida for residency training because community and family will always be a strong draw for him. And after he finishes graduate medical training, Palmer hopes to return to Avon Park to practice.

As one of the Highlands students left the College of Medicine Monday, he talked about the visit and the mentor he sees in Palmer. “No matter where you come from, anything is possible,” said middle schooler Dalton Whitman. “It’s cool, that even someone from Avon Park can do something big.”

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