Behind the Scenes of the Beginning

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

The 2024-2025 Albert Schweitzer Fellows are already hard at work on their projects. We caught up with two pairs of fellows– Andee Beierle and Caroline Davies and Ben Honan and Salem Khalaf – to get a behind-the-scenes look into what goes into bringing a project idea to life.

Off to a Sweet Start

Like so many good things, this story starts with ice cream.

One day Andee Beierle was craving ice cream, so she popped into Unless U Scoops for a sweet treat.

Unless U Scoops is an ice cream shop in Vestavia Hills that provides vocational training in a safe and fun work environment for the students of Unless U, a non-profit institution committed to helping adults with physical and intellectual disabilities thrive in all areas of life.

Andee was so inspired by what she learned about Unless U that she began volunteering there.

 “I just fell in love with the place,” says Andee, who’s volunteered at Unless U for two years. “I thought it was just the coolest thing ever.”

Now she and Caroline Davies – both students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Heersink School of Medicine — are teaming up for their ASF project to help improve the curriculum at Unless U. They’ll also be helping the school’s satellite campus Post Place, an Unless U campus specifically for students with multi-abilities.

Caroline Davies (left) and Andee Bierle (right) begin their fellowship year with Unless U.

“Our goal with the project is to help enhance their curriculum to incorporate more physical activity and education for the students,” Andee explains.

But this just scratches the surface of what Andee and Caroline hope to accomplish during their fellowship year.

“Our goal is to make it to where other medical students could hopefully one day volunteer at Unless U to keep the curriculum going even years after we’re gone,” Caroline says, adding that she and Andee want to do more than offer a band-aid type of solution.

Andee and Caroline are also working on developing modules for medical and physical therapy students that will teach them more about working with patients with disabilities.

“I’ve heard from many of the parents of the Unless U students that a lot of physicians don’t have a lot of experience working with this patient population,” Andee says. “So our goal is to not only help their longitudinal health, but also hopefully increase the hands-on experience of the medical students with the students at Unless U to ultimately benefit this patient population in the long run.”

Andee and Caroline’s project is off to a sweet start thanks to their relationship with Unless U.

“The people at Unless U are incredible and they’re so willing to talk with us and support us,” Caroline says, adding that school administrators play music throughout the school as the students rotate classes.  “It is such a warm welcoming community there. We’re very lucky in that way.”

Nonetheless, Andee and Caroline know that every ASF project has its challenges. But they’re ready.

“We went into this knowing that there are going to be challenges,” Caroline says. “We’re not coming with a solution; we’re coming to ask what they need help with. So that will continue to evolve. As we try to create the curriculum, we may realize there could be ways it can be enhanced or changed in certain ways. We want all that feedback from them. We’re expecting changes and we’re really excited about it, honestly.”

Amidst the changes and challenges, Andee says she and Caroline will stay focused on why they started the project in the first place.

“It’s always going to come back down to the students and what’s best for them and how we can benefit them,” Andee says. “The big thing is going in with an open mind and asking what we can do for them and how our project can best benefit, not just the students, but the staff too, and ultimately, the health and longevity of the students and even their families. That’s the way that we can stay rooted and true to what we’re trying to do.”

Healthcare & Cultural Humility

Upon first glance, Ben Honan and Salem Khalaf’s ASF project may seem unrelated to healthcare. But a closer look will reveal that projects like theirs have the potential to improve not only healthcare but nearly every other aspect of society too.

Ben and Salem are setting out to help middle and high school students improve their cultural humility.

“We want to engage local teens in dialogues about various topics with the goal being to build the competencies of connecting with people with different beliefs, backgrounds or ideologies,” Ben explains. “We want to help with building those skills of engaging with different people. The bigger goal is that they will be able to use these skills in various settings. The way it’s related to health is they’ll be able to advocate for themselves or their family members when speaking with health care workers.”

Salem Khalaf (left) and Ben Honan (right) will increase deliberative dialogue to help students learn to work across differences.

Salem explains it this way: Through cultural competency and sensitivity training young people can learn how to be respectful of and speak up for others. They can then apply that confidence to speaking up for themselves.

Ben and Salem’s partnership is special and intentional. Ben is Jewish. Salem is Palestinian.

“We wanted to come together to show individuals that there is a way to have productive dialogue between one another regardless of your background, and that there’s always something to learn from someone else,” Salem says.

The current political climate made Salem even more eager to pursue this project.

“I think that this is the perfect timing to have something like this, especially given that we are in an election year and things are about to become even more divisive than they have been in a long time,” Salem says.

Ben and Salem hope that through their project they can help young people develop empathy as they analyze what they believe and why they believe it.

Salem believes this type of introspection is especially important for young people in Birmingham.

“I think that this is a great opportunity for students to bolster their cultural humility, to see what other cultures are like, and gain a greater sense of what the world is like outside of the U.S.,” Salem says. “The U.S. is not the world. We’re in a bubble. And Birmingham itself is a bubble. It’s not Alabama. So we’re in multiple bubbles. So this is a way to expose the students, without leaving the bubble, to what is outside of it.”

Ben and Salem will be drawing from resources from the Sustained Dialogue Institute to create the curriculum for their project. They’re also working to sharpen their own social and emotional intelligence to prepare for the project.

Each Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project faces challenges and every fellow must be ready to pivot. Ben and Salem admit that finding organizations that serve teens that are willing to partner with them for this project has been difficult. But they’re not giving up.

They are also considering working with people in recovery from addiction and seniors in nursing homes and retirement communities.

Ben is optimistic.

“I feel like we might be lucky in that the big pivots are coming early,” Ben says.  “Just because we’re not only affecting the population that we initially set out to help doesn’t make the project any less valuable.”

Ben and Salem believe their project can have a lasting impact. Any organization they partner with will retain access to the program curriculum even after Ben and Salem’s fellowship year is complete. Furthermore, they are confident the project will have an impact on them as well.

Salem knows this experience will improve his project management skills and teach him how to create community health initiatives – something he is considering doing in Palestine. He believes the connections he’s making through ASF will help with any future initiatives as well.

Ben predicts an internal impact.

“Every time you open yourself up to listen to someone else, you’re learning about things that you just had never considered before,” he says. “And I think that will help us be better health care providers.”

Update: Since this article was written in March, Ben and Salem have identified the David Mathews Center for Civic Life as their community site partner.