Published August 12, 2021
Bernard Okai’s assignment for the UB Medical Student Day of Service proved to be near and dear to his heart.
Okai and fellow first-year medical students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences helped make beds for Sleep in Heavenly Peace, a nonprofit that constructs and delivers beds and bedding for Buffalo families in need.
Okai can relate.
“I didn’t have a bed as a child,” says Okai, who grew up in the West African nation of Ghana. “I had to sleep on the floor with my cousins in a small space.”
Sleep in Heavenly Peace, which operates out of a factory-like setting at the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence, New York, was one of six Day of Service sites; the other five were in the city of Buffalo.
While medical students don’t pick their Day of Service assignments, Okai was happy to end up where he did.
“I connect with this personally,” Okai says. “I know how it feels to grow up without a bed. Volunteering here and helping other people feels great.”
Okai came to the United States in 2016 as his family settled in Rochester, New York. He finished high school at Rochester Early College International High School and then earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from SUNY Brockport.
“Doing this for others and seeing a better future — to go home to a better bed, compared to what I had — it’s just very personal for me. I’m very happy to be here and very happy to help this organization,” Okai says.
The volunteer opportunity came about in a fortuitous way.
David A. Milling, MD, senior associate dean for student and academic affairs and associate professor of medicine, is the personal physician of Jerry Sheldon, Buffalo chapter president for Sleep in Heavenly Peace.
“When I was at my last physical, Dr. Milling asked me what I was doing. When I told him about this organization, he said he would love to get the medical students from the Jacobs School to come here and volunteer,” says Sheldon, whose son, Matthew Sheldon, MD, earned his medical degree from the Jacobs School in 2009 and is now a clinical assistant professor of urology.
“It fit with our philosophy regarding service, so I was eager to have the medical students participate,” Milling says.
The Buffalo chapter — which started making beds a little over a year ago — has built 705 beds and delivered 581 as of July 31.
“Most groups that come in to volunteer don’t realize how big a problem this is in our community. We think there are as many as 10,000 kids in Western New York who don’t have beds,” Sheldon says. “Sleep is so important for child development, and for many they’re not getting a good night’s sleep — they’re on the floor, they’re on the couch, they’re with mom or dad, they may be on an air mattress that may or may not have air in it. I’ve seen a lot of heartbreaking things.”
The medical students and other community groups — along with a dedicated core of 30 to 40 regular volunteers — are helping to change that narrative.
“I hope this is the beginning of what could be a long-term relationship with the Jacobs School,” Sheldon says.