Feature: Inspiring youth in Southwestern Ontario

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

On the front cover of the July 17, 2013 issue of the Seaforth Huron Expositor, a 17-year-old Valerie Steckle is pictured carefully putting a cast on her friend’s arm.

The photo was captured during a one-week summer camp experience, with a lesson on casting part of the line-up of fun and engaging activities.

“It was an inspirational week for me as a teenager,” said Steckle, now a second-year medical student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

A partnership between the School and local communities across Southwestern Ontario, the camp – now called Discovery Healthcare – aims to inspire youth to pursue careers in health care. The week of activities is led by medical students, and this year, will also include students pursuing other health professions.

“This type of camp experience introduces young people from rural communities to working in health care and helps them understand how they can get there, whether it be medicine, nursing or allied health professions” Steckle said.

Front cover of the Huron Expositor on July 17, 2013Born and raised in Zurich, a small community in Huron County, Steckle’s motivation to become a doctor started at a young age. Her oldest brother lives with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition affecting a number of body systems. “Growing up with a sibling who faced chronic health challenges made a big impact on me and my decision to pursue medicine,” she said. 

At 18, Steckle traded rural life for the largest city in Canada, attending the University of Toronto (UofT) for her undergraduate studies. “I showed up to biology class on the first day, one of 1,200 students in the lecture hall, and remember thinking, ‘there’s more people here than live in my hometown’,” she said with a laugh.  

A member of UofT’s Trinity College, the experience was eye-opening and rewarding. “It was a big change, but also a big opportunity for growth,” Steckle said. “My whole world opened up.”  

With a passion for serving the community, she volunteered with Musicbox Children’s Charity throughout her time in Toronto, teaching music lessons to children facing social and economic marginalization.

“I came to realize how deeply health and social issues are intertwined, it showed me the importance of seeing all parts of who people are, rather than just their illness,” she said.

 After graduating with an HBSc in Life Sciences, she completed a MSc in global health at McMaster University, undertaking some of her coursework at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

A student leader with Discovery Healthcare, Steckle has helped revamp the camp experience for high school students, expanding the focus to incorporate more health care professions and building research opportunities into the programming to better engage post-secondary camp leaders.

“We want camp participants to get to know all the career possibilities available to them, including allied health professions,” she said. “The activities are really hands-on and the curriculum includes shadowing experiences in health settings that they probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.”

Coming from a rural community that has struggled to retain and attract health professionals, Steckle understands the value of a camp like Discovery Healthcare. With an interest in women’s health and obstetrics, she hopes to be able to practice in a rural Southwestern Ontario community one day.

“Sometimes a good journey circles back to where it first began, and I had really great experiences with this summer program when I was a teenager,” she said. If we can help young people foster an interest and help guide them along the path, that is really powerful. It certainly was for me.”

Discovery Healthcare is open to high school students in grades nine to 12. Camps are taking place in July in Sarnia, Goderich, Chatham and Stratford. Learn more and register online.