With a mother, grandmother and aunt having worked as nurses, a career in the medical field always intrigued Kahlid Fowlkes. But the 17-year-old Dunbar senior's interest was piqued in the seventh grade when he dissected a pig heart in biology class.
"I thought it was pretty cool how a pig heart related to a human heart," Fowlkes recalled, alluding to the four-chamber feature and right-artery blood supply in both organs. "So I wanted to learn more about the human anatomy."
Fowlkes has taken steps toward that path as a member of MERIT Baltimore. MERIT, which stands for Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens, is a program offered to sophomores in city high schools that provides weekly Saturday courses, medical student mentorships and paid summer internships.
Tyler Mains, a fourth-year medical student at Johns Hopkins and MERIT's executive director, was recognized by the Ravens during their game against the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 22. For being selected, Mains and MERIT received a $3,500 grant.
"What stood out the most about Tyler's work was his level of dedication to the organization as a volunteer, overseeing full-time paid staff in his role as executive director after founding the program, all while finishing his final year of medical school," said Heather Darney, executive director of the Ravens Foundation.
Mains, who began teaching at Carver Vocational-Technical High as part of the Teach for America Baltimore corps after graduating from the University of Southern California, founded MERIT in 2010 to help connect students eager to learn and families lacking in consistent health care. The long-term goal is to groom students for careers in the medical field and to see them return to their hometown neighborhoods.
"If we can find people from those neighborhoods and give them everything they need to become those health-care professionals, then they're going to want to work in those areas because that's where they're from and who they're comfortable with," Mains said, citing a 2004 estimate that less than six percent of physicians are minorities of African-American, Hispanic and Native-American descent. "And they will be able to create new solutions that no one is thinking about because they know what it means to actually grow up there."
Mains said the program has what he calls 80 scholars, including 20 alumni who completed the three-year high school portion, 10 seniors, 20 juniors and 30 sophomores. Seventeen of the 20 alumni have moved on to four-year universities.
Since joining MERIT as sophomores, the senior group has raised its average grade-point average from 2.8 to 3.6. The average SAT score in the past two years has improved by 336 points.
Mains said MERIT hopes to change the perception of Baltimore youth.
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"I think what we are challenging people to do is to think about them as the future leaders in Baltimore," he said. "If we invest in our scholars and other youth in the city, then we can get people to think, 'Wow, what can we do to help them transform their lives?' That is what is ultimately going to transform the city."
Fowlkes is one of those potential leaders. Since joining MERIT, he has raised his GPA from a sub-3.0 to 3.5 and his class ranking from No. 40 to No. 27.
Fowlkes, who this past spring won a $40,000 Henrietta Lacks Dunbar Health Sciences Scholarship from Johns Hopkins and has applied to the University of Maryland-College Park, University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Morehouse College in Atlanta, credited MERIT with giving him the direction he needed.
"There'd be no one to direct me in the right path or help me come up with strategies to get me to where I want to be at in life," he said. "I don't think I would have applied to my colleges early. I don't think I would have started the college process. I don't think I would have been exposed to different experiences in life. I really don't know where I would be without MERIT."