One would have to search far and wide to find individuals who are more compassionate and service-minded than medical students, according to one official.

Most or all of the 150 students at the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine have taken it upon themselves to volunteer their time, knowledge and talent to numerous agencies and organizations in and near Fort Smith, said Laurel Starling-McIntosh, executive director of student services and student affairs for the medical college. These ongoing acts of selflessness are comprising a bond that grows stronger between the college and community members, she said.

"The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine is the first school of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, and the students didn't start classes until the end of July," said Starling-McIntosh. "Before the students set foot on campus, they started emailing our office to see who they could volunteer for and what shelters they could help.

"Once we got the students through the first round of exams, we let them join student organizations, and most of these projects have stemmed from the student organizations," she added. "We wanted to make sure we get a very service-minded student who will give back to the community, and that intensified with them wanting to be involved in the community. The students got involved quickly and heavily."

These projects, which aren't required by the college, include students helping at the Good Samaritan Clinic, Hannah House, Next Step Homeless Services and the Greenwood-based Westwood Elementary School, among other organizations, agencies and venues. Some students have visited and played games with residents of Methodist Village, while other students baked cookies, helped with decorations and discussed the importance of science and strong women at Girls Inc.

"We have around 24 student organizations, and some have 10 members and some have 30 members," Starling-McIntosh said. "There's some cross-pollination going on where some students volunteer with other clubs to help."

Among the student clubs are the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, the Association of Military of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons, the OB/GYN Student Club, the Student Government Association and the Christian Medical Association. The experience of participating in volunteer projects is invaluable, Starling-McIntosh said.

"The programs give the students early clinical experience, even though they are first-year medical students," she said. "This gets them ready to deal with patients on Day 1.

"Students are doing non-invasive exams at the onset; having primary contact with patients that first year is critical," Starling-McIntosh added. "Not every school does that, and we pride ourselves in that we get the students experience on Day 1."

Michael Page is a 32-year-old, first-year student at the college. His optimism shined while he offered positive comments about the volunteer programs.

"We are going to start volunteering at the Mercy Hope campus with Dr. Pat Montiel, and seeing patients," said Page, who originally is from Magnolia. "And we help with the Get Real 24 program, helping people in that program get back on their feet.

"Get Real 24 is a program for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who have just come out of the foster system," he added. "We go over things like time management with them. We show them how to build a resume, how to properly grocery shop and how to manage a budget."

Page almost immediately began experiencing the benefits of volunteering.

"It allows us to take the basic concepts we've learned in class and apply those to a patient," he said.

Shanell Gray, who also is a first-year student at the college, is equally enthusiastic about her volunteer work. The 27-year-old student is involved with several student organizations, including the Christian Medical Association, Docare and the Rural Medicine Club, and harbors a passion to help those who live in rural communities.

"Through Docare, we are working with Mercy to reach the underserved in Peru with a partnership with the Sisters of Mercy," said Gray, who grew up on a farm and ranch in Inola, Okla., near Tulsa. "We're looking to see how we can provide health care to a village in Peru and in rural Arkansas."

Thanks to watching her parents raise horses, Gray hopes to go into rural practice following graduation.

"My dad is a pastor at a cowboy ministry in Inola," she said. "Through his example, I have developed a passion to serve the rural communities — the farmer/rancher/common folk, because that is who I am."

Like the students, the community is benefiting from the volunteer programs, she said. Many of those who interact with the students are "under-served" individuals, Starling-McIntosh said.

"Our students are doing healthy-living classes for them and talking about basic nutrition and what it means to have a healthy lifestyle," she said. "A lot of times, it's basic things that the residents haven't gotten before."

Starling-McIntosh said she is hoping the volunteer programs continue each year.

"I think the love for the students and those they help is mutual," she said. "It's nice to see the students so enamored of those they are helping and working with, but it's also nice that the community is enamored of them."

Volunteering is one more way of inspiring the students to be "compassionate osteopathic physicians" and making it a priority to serve others, Starling-McIntosh said.

"There's no greater place to serve than in the Fort Smith area and northwest Arkansas," she said. "The fact that these students want to get out there so much so that they almost can't contain themselves, that shows what students are bringing in."

According to Starling-McIntosh, "about 24 percent" of the college's students are from Arkansas, while 60 percent of the students are from surrounding states. Students from places such as New York, California, South Dakota and Florida round out the college's student population, she said.

"It's our hope that our students will make Fort Smith their forever home, and the community has been amazed by these students," Starling-McIntosh said. "I've been at two start-up institutions, yet the community there never knew who we were. Here, it's a very different story. The community knows who we are and what we will do for the face of medicine here in Fort Smith, Ark., and that's a nice change to see compared to other places I've worked."  

Like Starling-McIntosh, Page wants to see the volunteer programs continue to have a positive impact on everyone involved.

"It is our hope that these partnerships will be an annual thing," he said. "We hope that they will continue long after we have graduated and become doctors."