SOM Health and Justice Elective Gets a Hand from 16-year-old CEO
Jonah Bassuk, CEO of Strong Heroes, Inc., Donated Computers for NYMC’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program
From donating toys to children’s hospitals at nine years old to being named a Westchester Magazine Wunderkind at the age of 16, Jonah Bassuk, an eleventh grader at Blind Brook High School in Rye Brook, New York, and his team of young professionals at Strong Heroes, Inc., are dedicated to improving health equity through education, research, policy and community engagement for underresourced communities and historically marginalized populations. This includes Bassuk’s collaboration with New York Medical College’s (NYMC) Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program with Westchester County Jail, part of the School of Medicine health and justice elective which provides opportunities for students to expand and consider their theoretical and practical understanding about the complex social, political and health-related topics within the carceral system.
The partnership with NYMC started off in March 2023, when Bassuk reached out to Mill Etienne, M.D. ‘02, M.P.H., FAAN, FAES, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, associate dean for student affairs, and associate professor of neurology and medicine. They conversed about social justice in health care and ways they can further the conversation. “Jonah is great,” Dr. Etienne said. “I thought I was meeting a grad student and he turned out to be in high school. He was very professional and had very interesting ideas. The wheels are always turning for him. He’s always thinking of the next project he can get involved in to make the world a better place.”
Dr. Etienne mentioned the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at NYMC, where for six weeks medical students from “outside” and men at Westchester County Jail from “inside” explore issues of justice, drawing forth from one another a deeper understanding of how these issues affect individuals and society. The program is adapted in many universities and colleges around the world.
“People who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated face major health disparities,” said Dr. Etienne. “The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized this. It’s important for medical students to be exposed to people from different populations, including people who are or were formerly incarcerated so they could understand the challenges they face and how it plays into their health in the present and future.”
Bassuk’s eyes were opened to another aspect of health equity. “I learned a lot about new health technology that's being used in the industry from Dr. Etienne and a whole new aspect of health equity, for example, healthtech for people who are incarcerated,” he said. “I really would like to expand my solutions for improving health equity to the prison population so I can help as many people as possible.”
When Dr. Etienne said that the program’s computers for the people who are incarcerated would not arrive in time for the start of the course, Bassuk said his organization, Strong Heroes, Inc., could help secure and donate computers and, in fact, supplied six computers before the elective began.
“It is really great to see young people being so aware of the privilege that they have and working to empower underresourced communities, not just going in there and fixing things, but empowering other people,” said Dr. Etienne.
Bassuk’s journey into humanitarianism started back in 2015 after he had an appendectomy at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island. “My experience was really traumatic for me as a nine-year-old,” he said. “I was in the hospital for a week and I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't even walk. The hospital had so many games and toys, so I spent time playing Xbox and board games with my family. Then I realized there are so many other patients everywhere who don't have those resources that can alleviate their pain in a mental aspect.”
Bassuk organized a fundraiser at his school with his fourth-grade class to purchase toys, books, games and medical supplies for children in Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Donation boxes were filled in a matter of days. He continued his fundraisers every year, adding more hospitals to donate to, until the eighth grade. While he was in high school the COVID-19 pandemic started and he had to switch gears.
“With COVID, it was really difficult to bring the boxes of donations to hospitals because the world went remote,” said Bassuk. “There was no way of getting people to donate, unless it was virtual. I thought, ‘How are we going to do this so that people are able to donate from farther distances away?' The idea of the nonprofit started.”
He was determined to continue his efforts despite the drawback of the lack of physical donation bins not being broadly accessible due to COVID-19 restraints. The idea of the nonprofit, Strong Heroes, Inc., was born in 2020. The organization accepted monetary donations and allowed donors to shop for items on a hospital’s wish list located on the Strong Heroes, Inc., website. As the pandemic waned, the organization returned to physical donation boxes, while also keeping the online option.
Since the inception of Strong Heroes, Inc., Bassuk has received national recognition from numerous political, social, corporate and community-based leaders and now has more than 50 hospital partnerships, 8,000 donations and 500 volunteers.
This collaboration with Bassuk and Dr. Etienne sparked a new, meaningful relationship for the pair. They continue conversations about potential projects they could work on to tackle health equity from many fronts with people of various identities, socioeconomic backgrounds and statuses. The two look forward to working together in the future to address issues of health equity.
“Dr. Etienne is really an inspiring individual in the space of health equity. If there's any opportunity available, I would love to help and keep this partnership going because it's a great program, a great college, great medical school and I would really like to make a difference,” said Bassuk.