How Poverty Studies Helped Me Realize the Scope of Healthcare Needs in America

By Grace Barnett

Ms. Barnett attended the Medical University of South Carolina where she earned her Doctorate in Physical Therapy.  She spent the next year working at an outpatient pediatric therapy clinic in rural Georgia.  She is a 2011 graduate of Washington and Lee University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies. She is currently living abroad with her husband who is in the United States Navy.

"What is wrong with this world that she would have to live that way and what was wrong with me that I never saw it?" writes Barnett (W&L 2013).

“What is wrong with this world that she would have to live that way and what was wrong with me that I never saw it?” writes Barnett (W&L 2013).


In order to really explain my experience with the Shepherd Program I should start prior to my first day in Poverty 101 class. Two weeks before I was born, my parents hired a woman named Louise to help my mom with the house and the new baby. Louise, dubbed “WeeWee” by a two-year-old me, is the second most important and influential woman in my life. All of my childhood memories involve WeeWee, who was always in my home enriching my life with her love and care. WeeWee was diagnosed with glioblastoma when I was a senior in high school and the tables turned a bit. Not only was she no longer able to care for me, but she also wasn’t able to take care of herself. My mom and I did everything that we could to ensure that she had the best care. An experience that was daunting and difficult, for two educated women, would have been impossible for Louise and her husband without our help. We visited her home weekly to ensure that her medications were organized and that she had what she needed to be comfortable. After 18 years of seeing WeeWee in my home, I was able to see what she went home to every night and it broke my heart. WeeWee passed away 10 months after she was diagnosed but she will live on for the rest of my life in my heart and in my work.

I was introduced to the Shepherd Poverty Program during my first semester at Washington and Lee. I knew immediately that I would enroll at the first opportunity so that I could more fully understand how and why my WeeWee had lived the way that she had. I wanted to understand how I could love someone so fully and never see the poverty behind her life with me. What is wrong with this world that she would have to live that way and what was wrong with me that I never saw it?

Throughout my four years in college, I was able to tailor my studies to learn everything that I could about the impact of poverty on families, children, access healthcare, and mental health. I volunteered at the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic where I was able to recognize the poverty that surrounded me in the very sheltered community that was Washington and Lee. I was able to see, first hand, how difficult it is for Americans living in poverty to access quality healthcare. I did an internship at Texas Children’s Hospital on the Oncology and Hematology floor where I was able to witness the impact of illness on children and families. With encouragement from my advisor, I delved into access to mental healthcare for the poor and how our system is wrought with inadequacies that lead to neglect and, in some cases, abuse of those who most need protection. I was then able to see first-hand the things that had I explored in the classroom in real situations during my volunteer work. Most importantly, the Shepherd Program helped me understand the woman who raised me and how I can honor her memory by working for those who are largely failed by the systems in place. The program softened my heart and changed my mind, from that of a privileged 18 year old girl into a woman who could recognize the suffering around me, suffering that is invisible to most.

I spent the next three years working on my doctorate in physical therapy. It was immediately evident to me that I would be able to spend my life as a therapist making a difference in the lives of my patients. Working in a rural Georgia clinic, I came face-to-face with many of the same issues that I observed in the Rockbridge area. However, this time I was in a better position to really make a difference for my patients. I spent a year reaching out to all of the local charities, non-profits, and benefit programs seeking out the best treatment and supplies for my patients. I wrote letters on behalf of children with special needs, requesting funding for the equipment that they desperately needed but could not afford. I advocated for overwhelmed parents who needed support to continue to battle their child’s disabilities. Each little victory on behalf of a patient felt like a huge success for me…a life-changing success that I may never have known to fight for if not for all that I learned and experienced through the Shepherd Poverty Program.

#RockbridgeAreaFreeClinic