4th Annual Night of Starrs

Stand Tall Award Recipient

Dawn DeLuca

Educational Outreach and Community Affairs, Western Michigan University Homer Stryker, M.D. School of Medicine

The Power of Purpose

Lessons with Higher Purpose

Dawn DeLuca is the Health Careers & Pathway Coordinator for the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine at Western Michigan University. In this role, she is responsible for the success of the Early Introduction to Health Careers (EHIC) program, which gives Kalamazoo-area youth the opportunity to explore biomedical science and health care fields through weekend workshops and summer camps. Since 2014, DeLuca has worked with students (both high schoolers and the medical school students who run the workshops) to break down barriers of socioeconomic status to increase awareness of health care industries to youth from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the field, as well as provide a platform of purpose that may otherwise be absent in the lives of these children.

It’s in that purpose where DeLuca’s passion is most pronounced, and it comes at a time when the effects of trauma on children, schools, and communities are at a crescendo in the national narrative. She has taken her own experiences in the classroom to both reach underserved children, but also begin advocating for teachers at a time where many feel less appreciated than ever.

“In so many instances, our current education system is broken,” emphasizes DeLuca. “We spend so much time in curriculum and strategy, but you look at schools and you have teachers who are empty—who have given it their all. And when that’s true, none of that strategy matters anymore.”

These poignant words come from DeLuca’s own experience in the education system. Having spent her early professional years as a choir teacher in Battle Creek, she witnessed first-hand what the power of purpose can do for schools. Her choirs utilized their platform to sing of social justice throughout Battle Creek, turning choir class into something much bigger than music—it’s now an opportunity to change your community for the better, and feel the satisfaction of making a difference. She takes this same approach to the students in EHIC.

“I’ve often found that the biggest barrier to success can be one’s view of self-worth. Sometimes, simply seeing what is possible is enough to break through. At EIHC, it’s the day they receive their scrubs. When they put them on and see themselves… something clicks. It’s a symbol of professionalism, and can be a huge motivator.”

Purpose Beyond Position

The sense of self-worth is not only critical for students. While in the classroom, she also had a passion for health and wellbeing among teachers and discovered how tragically absent that sense had become. In a setting that must address trauma affecting student performance, there was now the added issue of secondary trauma. Consequently, society is seeing schools fail and educators leave the profession—something DeLuca strives to fix in Kalamazoo.

“We have so many teachers who understand what it takes to produce successful students, but the myriad of needs—anything from healing trauma to checking every box of state-mandated standards— that must be met to make that happen makes it impossible to do alone,” decries DeLuca. “We are asking them to climb mountains without providing them any ropes. Until we start putting professionals in each school to counsel and provide therapy and dedicate their entire day to give kids the tools they need to be successful, we’ll continue to operate in a broken system. So that’s my purpose—to advocate for a system that supports and empowers our educators. We know that your zip code often determines educational and health outcomes. We know that one of the biggest factors for later life success is being read to as a child. Anyone can see that those two factors are deeply connected in much bigger issues with our system, and I’m happy to sit at the table and be the voice to address the real issues facing our community.”

One table she has found herself is with Starr Commonwealth.

Partners with Purpose

To DeLuca, Starr is a powerful ally in the mission of breaking through the barriers to learning in our communities and achieving her purpose to improve the lives of educators. “What we think everyone knows about trauma, they actually don’t,” warns DeLuca. “We all have our little matches burning here or there for change, but we really need to throw them all into the same bonfire. Thanks to the work of Starr, I am now validated, and it fuels my mission to know that others are fighting for change too!”

That change specifically resonates due to her work with the EIHC, who was recently trained by Dr. Caelan Soma in trauma-informed practices. “Our medical school students (who are leading and teaching Kalamazoo youth in the program) are now trained to identify signs and symptoms of trauma. Not only is this greatly beneficial for their work in EHIC, but now they have the opportunity to change even more lives when they complete their medical school training. They will have the power to reach patients and refer them to services they may not have realized they needed. To me, this comes full-circle back to teacher burnout. Imagine a world where teachers visiting the doctor can now be screened for secondary trauma. It’s truly a transformational shift for communities. We must get trauma-informed curriculum in the hands of every helping professional. It must happen. And we can do so by bringing our light sources together and shining a spotlight on the issues we must resolve in communities. We must be that compelling positive voice, and we’re stronger together.”

Learn more about the Early Introduction to Health Careers program.