From a grain of passion: M3 Andrea Lopez builds initiative with family, student peers
M3 Andrea Lopez and her family founded Grains of Love, a mission organization committed to providing basic care supplies to communities in and around Honduras
By: Lexie Little
When M3 Andrea Lopez went home for the holidays in 2021, she truly went home. Boarding the plane at Nashville International Airport for her birthplace of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, a nervous excitement crept across her face in the form of a smile flashed to her immediate family. She couldn’t wait to unbox essential supplies for the girls aged four to 17 in the community orphanage, hopefully seeing them smile as well.
Earlier in the year, browning bananas on the kitchen counter had proven fruitful. Not wanting them to go to waste, Lopez and her sister, Priscilla, starting baking banana bread, which they sold to raise funds to send back to Honduras, where political corruption and poverty limit the capacity of citizens to acquire basic supplies like soaps and toothbrushes. As they delivered the bread through connections with their home cleaning service, they realized many clients and friends also had items they intended to donate that could likewise help.
“Clients would always give them stuff like donations that they would otherwise take to Goodwill or nonprofits like that. So, we just started asking people not only if they wanted to provide funds but also if they would allow us to pick up donations from them,” she said. “My mom would send my aunt the money that we made from the banana bread, and my aunt would make small baskets of food to send to the orphanage and stuff like that. Her husband works for the police there, so she has a lot of connections with orphanages and local services. We didn’t really know what we were doing. [That effort] wasn’t meant to become like an organization – we were just doing it because it was around the holidays, and we wanted to help.”
As she ventured through the sweltering streets to deliver care items like toothbrushes, soaps, and clothing, she noticed local men, women, and children without supplies to support even their mobility, further limiting their ability to find resources. Sticks substituted for crutches. Old wheelchairs stalled in disrepair. And the future physician in Lopez took note.
Lopez and her family realized they could contribute even more, thinking of all the times they saw wheelchairs huddled in the corner at Goodwill or a gently used walker standing still. They returned to the United States and continued to gather supplies, this time acquiring wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen in addition to kids clothes, cookware, and personal hygiene products. Those grains of bread turned into heaps of boxes and an organization honoring their beginning: Grains of Love.
Box upon box, sized to fit a laundry dryer and filled to the brim, gradually forced the family car out of the garage. Lopez reached out to classmates at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to ask for items in closets or under sinks that they had planned to donate. A box in the student lounge area now sits full, ready to ship to Honduras and Utila, a nearby island. Sending five boxes and several wheelchairs and walkers at a time, her aunt awaits them for distribution.
“We know a shipping company that comes to our house and packages them,” she said. “[The boxes] take about a week to get to my aunt there. We aim to send them every three months, using the time between to sort items. We collect supplies in our garage that need to be sorted depending on type. It’s gratifying, just giving people opportunity to have more than what they already do. Putting a smile on their face is really great. And we would like to still do more. It really started small. Medical supplies and the growth of our mission weren’t really planned. But we see that if you provide people with their basic necessities and needs, it also impacts their health care and overall wellbeing.
“The reason we left is it just such a poor country. The opportunities are just not there, and clinics and hospitals are overcrowded. There’s a lack of supplies for many people, even just to be able to have a clean set of clothes something to call your own. We want to do anything we can to help.”
Lopez and her family know firsthand the hardships of navigating a health care system with limited resources. When she first moved to the United States, she translated for her mother as they visited free clinics not unlike Shade Tree Clinic, Vanderbilt’s student-run free clinic for underserved populations in Middle Tennessee.
As physicians and nurses rotated in and out, Lopez saw face after face different from her own. Very few, if any, spoke Spanish. And though she’s always been fascinated by biology and learning by the body, that experience informed her decision to pursue a career in medicine.
Now, she builds on a spirit of service by a desire to support and increase in populations traditionally underrepresented in medicine and care for patients from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people in health care that looked like me or spoke Spanish, so I really wanted to increase the amount of underrepresented people in medicine,” she said. “For me, I’ve always particularly put my effort into providing targeted care to the Hispanic community, especially being from Honduras. That’s where my heart is, and here, that passion translates into my role as the director at Shade Tree for Spanish interpreter services. It’s really been my mission to give back to places like Shade Tree and clinics that have helped me in the past to serve populations in need of accessible care. It’s just so hard for them to get access to care, and I hope to make sure that they know that they’re not forgotten, and they’re heard.”
During her clerkship year, Lopez developed an affinity for surgery, becoming the interest group leader for general surgery. Though she plans to explore more surgical subspecialties through electives this academic year, she knows she wants to integrate global health into her career.
She takes inspiration from classmates who drive global efforts like REMEDY, a student group that collects unused surgical supplies from Vanderbilt’s operating rooms and labs to “recover medical equipment for the developing world.” In the previous year, a partnership between REMEDY and a pediatric heart surgery team led to supply delivery in Latin America.
“I would love to do a month rotation somewhere specifically like a Spanish-speaking country,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to see how like other people in my class follow their passions and missions. We all have different things that we’re passionate about and different missions, but it’s really empowering that we can help each other out. VUSM encourages us as great leaders, so there’s some great initiatives out there that people have just come up with, sometimes under the radar. They don’t brag about it – they just like go and do it, locally and globally despite busy schedules.”
Lopez finds that sense of community and help both at Vanderbilt and at home, where her family drives mission efforts. Her parents make connections between the United States and Honduras, her sister oversees operations as a co-leader, and friends and classmates bolster their efforts through donations.
Her classmate, Georgina Sellyn, has donated clothing to Grains of Love, which she calls an incredible family-run initiative. Sellyn sees not only the family’s passion to help others, but Lopez’s dedication to service.
“Drea has always wanted to give back to her community,” Sellyn said. “Her selfless nature led her to join student organizations that allowed her to serve others…She is extremely personable and can motivate those around her with her with the enthusiasm she has for her passions. She is genuine, honest and has an impressive work ethic that all help to foster a supportive environment for her peers…Paired with the collaborative nature of the school, Vanderbilt students can work together in a multitude of initiatives to contribute important work to our communities and beyond.”
Sellyn noted that VUSM offers countless opportunities for students to become engaged in service projects, from clinical care in Shade Tree Clinic to health equity projects through the Social Mission Committee.
Now, Lopez hopes to grow her efforts as she learns how to incorporate mission and service into her career as a future physician, all the while encouraging others to follow their dreams.
“Whether [Grains of Love] expands or not, this is something I’ve always wanted to do, being from [Honduras] and knowing the necessity there,” she said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to eventually go back and provide not only health care but provide for basic needs. I would love to work a few months out of every year there. In the meantime, this is the least I can do, packing boxes and working to build this organization. There’s no effort too small to help somebody. Just go for it. There’s no formula to this. If you are passionate about something, you’re willing to put in the effort, any effort. I’m truly passionate about mission work, and it’s something that I want to incorporate into my future career. I don’t want to or have to wait until I’m established doctor to start. And it’s okay to start small.”
An effort can start as small as a single grain.