Dr. Rashid Abdu has impacted many lives through the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center.
But another program he started, which pairs local elementary school students with Honors College students at Youngstown State University, also has had an impact on tomorrow’s student leaders.
On Thursday, YSU and the Sokolov Honors College surprised Abdu, a longtime tutor and retired local surgeon, by naming the program Dr. Abdu’s Pen Pals Program in his honor.
Through the program, YSU Honors students correspond with students from Harding Elementary, Girard Intermediate and Brookfield Elementary with journals sent back and forth. Last year, there were 320 pairs of pen pals, detailing their favorite subject in school and fun activities.
Dr. Rashid Abdu speaks during Thursday’s event at YSU.
“We have to connect kids,” Abdu said. “This is our future. Our community’s future is these kids, our greatest assets.”
Abdu said he was at Harding Elementary with 21 second-graders once and saw the importance of these children to the future of the Mahoning Valley.
“I see teachers; I see businesspeople; I see plumbers; I see doctors; I see lawyers if we do it right. Because if we don’t, these will be our terrorists. These will be the ones we will support in jails and that will be the greatest loss to our community and the state and the nation. Things do not just happen locally; we are connected to everybody.”
Abdu compares that connection to how he used to describe a patient with a hernia to younger doctors training with him. That hernia is connected to a person, who has a loving family, which is part of the community.
The connection that students at elementary schools and YSU feel through Dr. Abdu’s Pen Pals Program provides them with more than just good feelings. Teachers report that their elementary students improve their writing skills, spelling and grammar. Attendance improves, according to Amy Cossentino, dean of the Sokolov Honors College and associate provost.
Cossentino said they are looking to expand the program, possibly having an event at the end of the school year where the students can meet each other, possibly come see YSU’s campus or go to a museum.
Natalie Dando, a YSU junior double majoring in chemical engineering and math, joined the program after only about a month on campus, and she enjoys the opportunity to inspire younger students.
“I know last year … I was talking to my pen pal and getting them excited about learning math in class, and now they are telling me they want to go to school, go to college for math,” said Dando, who is serving as the YSU student coordinator this school year.
At this point in the year there are 230 YSU students signed up, and a lot more elementary students expecting a pen pal. Dando said she and other YSU students are just as excited to hear from their pen pals as the young students they are swapping journals with.
“I really noticed right from the beginning that it really helped with their writing and that they were able to communicate one-on-one with someone from college,” said Pam Baker, a counselor at Girard Intermediate school, which has participated in the program for about seven years. Baker said many of the students look up to their YSU pen pals, who share with them their majors and interests. That connects those students with someone outside of the Girard nucleus and expands their feeling of connection into the community at large.
“It has been a great collaboration, and I am excited to continue with this program,” Baker said.
Cossentino said Abdu was the one who suggested the program in 2012. When it started, it was not anticipated how much excitement there would be when the journals returned – not just for the elementary school students, but also for the college students.
Natalie Dando, a YSU junior and current student coordinator for Dr. Abdu’s Pen Pals Program.
“Something so simple as a child with a writing utensil, this makes an impact,” Cossentino said, noting one child had a death in the family and their pen pal was able to help them navigate it.
Baker said there have been times when something alarming in a journal has been brought to her attention so she could provide a little additional counseling for that student.
“I love this program,” said Ashley Orr, the program’s first student coordinator in 2012. “I think it was one of the most impactful things that I did when I was a YSU student. There really are two words that I use to describe it: inclusive and impactful.”
Orr said it gives YSU students a chance to feel like they are now part of the Youngstown community, including those not originally from here. It also impacts the younger students they are paired with, improving their self-image and possibly encouraging them to go to college too.
That prompted Shell Polymers Monaca, a petrochemical company operating in the area, to decide to pledge an annual $25,000 sponsorship for the program, even though the program is outside the realm of science, technology, engineering and math programs Shell usually supports.
Curtis Thomas, corporate relations manager based at the Shell Polymers Monaca plant, said after meeting Abdu and hearing about his dream, it was an easy decision to support such a program.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with oil and gas. What it does have to do with is the community and making the community better, so that is why Shell participated in this event,” Thomas said. “It is outside of the bounds of our normal donations, but when you have a leader, and it is based on somebody with a heart like Dr. Abdu, and then you know that you are helping kids live better lives and connect in this time when people are not connecting anymore, that’s just critical.”
Pictured at top: Members of Dr. Abdu’s Pen Pals Program, both past and present, pose with Dr. Rashid Abdu, fourth from right, as well as Amy Cossentino, second from right, dean of the Sokolov Honors College and associate provost.