A Community Service Journey

"The Shepherd Poverty Alliance (SPA) Internship allowed me to gain firsthand experience on the effects of poverty and contributed to my career path."

“The Shepherd Poverty Alliance (SPA) Internship allowed me to gain firsthand experience on the effects of poverty and contributed to my career path.”


Richard Cooks graduated from Berea College in 2008 with a BA in Biology. He has worked with Baxter Pharmaceuticals, Teach for America, Alabama Department of Human Resources, Princeton Baptist Medical Center, and is currently employed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. He holds a nursing degree from Lawson State Community College. He expects to receive a Nurse Practitioner degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2017.

In 2008, I graduated from Berea College with a Bachelors of Art in Biology. Although I majored in the biological sciences, Berea’s commitment to liberal arts allowed me to explore contemporary issues in my general education courses. As I progressed in my studies, I was exposed to numerous peace and social justice issues. In spring 2005, I had the privilege to take Dr. Jill Bouma’s general studies course entitled GST 203: U.S. Traditions. In this course, Dr. Bouma was tasked with one of the most important aspects of my liberal arts education, challenging me to think critically about unity, diversity, race, class, gender, and other social and political issues. Her teaching philosophy encouraged me to consider values and issues that unite and divide the U.S. population. She made it clear that poverty is an issue that promotes division. In particular, After graduation, I worked as a polymerase chain reaction technician (PCR) and a quality- assurance auditor at a biomedical company. I also worked with Teach For America (TFA) and later the Alabama Department of Human Resources. Currently, I practice as a Registered Nurse (RN) in trauma/burns step-down and intensive care. I am currently enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing in the Masters of Science in Nursing-Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner program. I am expected to graduate August 2017 and plan to work with patients who have limited access to healthcare. In the summer of 2006, my Berea College mentors, Dr. Ralph Thompson and Dr. Katrina Rivers-Thompson, encouraged me to apply to the SPA. I was stationed in Boston, MA at Codman Square Community Health Center (CSCHC) and worked for a non-profit organization entitled Breath of Live Dorchester (BOLD) Teens. The teens focused on poverty in terms of vulnerable populations and social determinants of health. The teens were led by Reverend Bill Loesch and his daughter Cynthia Loesch. The teens wanted to prevent tobacco related illness and death, especially in Boston’s inner cities. The teens cited research that showed higher rates of childhood respiratory illnesses in low socioeconomic communities plagued by tobacco smoke and other air pollutants. I served as a mentor and intern project coordinator for the teens’ advocacy efforts and community service.

In addition, the internship served as an undergraduate research enrichment opportunity which allowed me to research the effects of air pollution and tobacco on Bostonians. As my faculty advisor and professor, Dr. Ralph Thompson challenged me to reflect on my personal experiences with low socioeconomic status and smoking. As a result, I was able to empathize with the teens as they campaigned for the ban of tobacco products in Boston pharmacies and rallied against crime and gang violence. Ultimately, their focus on environmental issues led to the planting of trees and gardens throughout the inner city.

My experience in SPA inspired me to be a leader and advocate for change. I joined TFA to teach, lead, and advocate for educational equity. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, I wanted my students to achieve big educational and life goals. I wanted them to be successful like the teens I encountered in Boston. After a brief tenure with TFA, I was granted a medical emergency release. I returned to Birmingham, Alabama where I was temporarily without health insurance and the county hospital was experiencing financial difficulty. At that point, I realized the extent to which low socioeconomic status and social determinants of health diminish access to health care. In addition, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, which could have been detected sooner if she had better access to healthcare.

Like BOLD Teens, I took action. I enrolled in a registered nursing program and graduated in 2011. I joined the Birmingham Black Nurses Association. Our community service efforts included primary and secondary prevention. We educated communities on ways to prevent illness and provided them with information pertaining to free or low cost healthcare clinics. Secondary prevention allowed us to provide blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and some cancer screenings. I wrote an article pertaining to prostate cancer screening that was published in the National Black Nurses Association Newsletter that circulated in the spring of 2012.

In closing, community service is time that an individual spends helping to improve community and individual health and well-being. As a result, I decided to pursue a career in nursing. The SPA played an integral part in my decision to enter healthcare. SPA enhanced my commitment to community service, which allowed me to see multiple facets of poverty. As a nurse, I am able to help my entire community by working with surrounding hospitals and organizations to ensure that all residents have access to quality health care. As a future nurse practitioner, I hope to continue my community service journey that has been heavily influenced by Berea College, Shepherd Poverty Alliance, and BOLD Teens.