For about a year now, Zach Nichols has spent his Friday afternoons outside Prevention Point’s front doors to help with the needle exchange program. On one cold, rainy day before Christmas, a participant he’d seen a few times gave him a hot cup of coffee she’d purchased for him at a nearby store.“It was very much a ‘We’re in this together’ type thing,” says Zach, a third-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University. “It was so generous. A cup of coffee is a bigger deal on her budget than mine."
The gesture showed that Zach had been seen and his efforts appreciated. Twice a week for months, without expectation of accolades, he’d shown up, done whatever was asked of him, listened rather than lectured, and never judged. He’d slowly built relationships.“If you want to do anything with anyone, they have to trust you, and to build trust, you have to put in the time. There’s no shortcut or cheat code,” he says.“When you put the time in, people talk to you, and it’s fun to learn how strange and wonderful everyone is in their own way. As the cliché goes, everybody has a story.”
Zach, a Philadelphia native, was inspired to volunteer with Prevention Point because he was unfamiliar with Kensington, but knew it was a neighborhood in need. Besides helping with the Syringe Services Program, he also made it a point to accompany participants who needed to visit an emergency room. He often didn’t like what he saw there.“Accessing health care for our folks is a really fraught experience,” he says.“I hear people talk about how bad it is, but it’s another thing to see hospitals not practicing hospitality. If they’re mistreating people when I’m there, I can only imagine what they do when I’m not there.”
While Zach won’t be able to volunteer as much during the upcoming academic year, he still intends to keep weekly Men’s Nights on his calendar.“I’m super grateful for this experience. I definitely look at things differently and I guess that’s because I know people and have talked to them and know how things can go wrong. It’s changed how I think and feel about what I’m here to do,” he says.“That’s going to come with me any place I go.”