Neilesh Patel ’03 will never forget the day he cooked and served spaghetti at a homeless shelter at age 8, or the smile on the face of one of the menhe served. “That feeling really sparked my interest in public service,” says Patel, who majored in biomedical engineering at the Whiting School with a concentration in computer science.
Now a dentist in an underserved part of central California, Patel is the 2013 recipient of the prestigious National Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by an Individual Under the Age of 35, an award dubbed the “Nobel Prize for public service and volunteerism,” which puts him in the company of such previous recipients as Jimmy Carter, Steve Jobs, and Faith Hill.
The award recognizes work he began in dental school at UCLA, when he and another student hoped to use their nascent health care skills as volunteers in the developing world but found a dearth of opportunities. So, in 2006, they launched their own nonprofit with $250 in startup money. HealthCare Volunteer was designed to connect individuals who want to volunteer their expertise with the more than 1 billion people around the world who lack access to basic care because of a shortage of health workers. Linking volunteers from every health care profession with underserved patients, HealthCare Volunteer has facilitated services and education for more than 1 million people in 190-plus countries.
Growing up in Los Altos, California, Patel found that his driving force was always a desire to help. Following his service at the homeless shelter, he went on to volunteer at a convalescent hospital in high school and, with a fellow student, used his computer skills to start a nonprofit offering free technical support services, a venture he expanded while he was a student at Johns Hopkins. Later, that same drive to serve led him to dentistry, a field whose mechanics and hands-on nature were a good fit for his engineer’s mind.
“Health care is the ultimate way to help people,” he says. “Restoring health and alleviating pain, those things you can do, are the absolute essence of existence.”
He’s since turned HealthCare Volunteer into an online platform that, rather than creating its own projects, allows 3,000 other nonprofits to post opportunities for its 100,000 volunteers. Patel, who lives in Los Altos and Porterville, California, has also gone on to open a pediatric dental clinic in a rural, underserved area of central California, earned a patent for a system that efficiently distributes volunteers during national disasters and created a Silicon Valley startup open-air marketplace for dental services to California’s underserved and uninsured.
“What really drives me is change, and not money,” says Patel, who credits his father’s focus on citizenship with catalyzing his own passion for service. “Luckily, I already had the resources myself to actually create that change.”
Those resources have been key to the impact he’s had, says Patel, who was honored with the Outstanding Recent Graduate Award from the Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association. He says that Hopkins’ hands-on opportunities gave him the practical background he needed. “An engineering degree enables you to do big things,” he says. “When you come out of college knowing how to do something that applies to the real world, you can hit the ground running.”