Even at a young age, Kenia Sanchez was keenly aware that almost all the doctors her family visited were white and male. So, she committed to becoming a doctor herself to do her part to help change the face of medicine.
Her father, who immigrated from El Salvador, initially was skeptical of her ambitions. “He said, ‘That’s not built for you,’” Sanchez recalled. “He hadn’t seen any Hispanic doctors. I was little at the time, but it gave me more of a push, not to prove him wrong, but to prove everyone wrong.”
Sanchez, a science, technology, and society major from Brentwood, aspires to become a pediatric oncologist and, more specifically, a physician who assists people in impoverished countries.
Sanchez founded a non-profit called Changing the Altars of the Heart to raise money and provide food, clothing, toiletries, medical supplies, and even beds to people in other countries. She has delivered many of the supplies herself.
“I always wanted to help others once I became a doctor by providing treatment in other countries, but seeing as I wasn’t a doctor yet, I figured the next best way to give back to those in need was by doing my best to raise money here and distributing it over there,” Sanchez explained. “The goal is to hopefully continue doing it every year to the point where it becomes big enough not for fame, but to one day be able to build houses for families and provide their children with an education.”
Assisted by friends, family members, her own resources, and even her Research Aligned Mentorship (RAM) program advisor, Dylan Gafarían, she raised money and took supplies to the Dominican Republic in 2021 and to El Salvador in 2022.
“I really love people, especially children,” Sanchez said. “Seeing them struggle just makes me want to help more. I didn’t have much growing up, but I still had more than these children do.”
In recognition of her efforts, Sanchez was named a Newman Civic Fellow by Campus Compact in April 2023. She was one of only 154 students nationwide to receive the distinction for demonstrating leadership and involvement in community service. Over the course of a year, Newman Civic Fellows participate in mentoring, networking with other fellows, and workshops focused on skills development and leadership.
This summer, Sanchez attended a six-week research program at Brown University to study the behavioral neurogenetics of addiction. Students explored the genetic, neural, and molecular mechanisms of memory, reward, and addiction using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. “It will be good to build interactions with other students and meet people who have the same mindset as I do,” she said.
Sanchez will continue to raise money for families in Honduras and arrange for a friend to deliver funds and supplies. She chooses the areas she supports based on need and the connections to those areas that she has in the U.S. “When you go there, it’s not hard to spot poverty,” she added.
Sanchez continues to stay in contact with the families she has visited, including through video messages from a pastor she met in El Salvador.
The videos are humbling, she said. “All of these people are extremely grateful for what they have. We have a roof over our heads and food and still complain. Some of them don’t have houses; they live under cardboard with blankets, and they still are grateful.”
While the financial assistance is important, Sanchez strives to create memories for families, which can be just as meaningful, she said. “Money is always going to come and go, but the memories we can help these families form—getting their first pair of new shoes, first bookbag, or even their first ice cream—will never leave.”