Philip Levine’s legacy remembered by student

He was just an average guy wearing a blue hospital gown and funky colored socks and who had a passion for poetry.

“He had to stop and breathe every few minutes, but I waited patiently because I wanted to know more about this guy,” the volunteer nurse said.

She had no idea who he was and why he was there, but she was instantly intrigued by his love of poetry.

Lillian Toste, a Fresno State senior speech pathology major, has volunteered at Saint Agnes Medical Center for the past year as part of her service-learning program. Her daily tasks at the hospital include directing incoming patients to their rooms and making small talk with them.

She was there to make an impact on the lives of others, but this particular small-talk strike-up with this goofy old man goes to show that service learning is more than just a one-way street.

Philip Levine, a national poet laureate from Fresno, was the goofy man in the blue gown and crazy socks lying in the hospital bed that afternoon. Toste was performing her weekly round of patient meal planning when she struck up a conversation with Levine.

“We started talking about culture because of the food he chose for his weekly meal plan,” Toste said. “Then I mentioned my service trip to Fiji, and he just started talking about all the places he’s been.”

Toste still had no clue who this man was, but her interest in his story grew.

“I was taken aback by how awesome he was,” she said. “He gave me so much advice and he even signed his poetry book for me.”

One evening she heard about the passing of Levine.

“I started researching him and learning more about him,” Toste said.

Levine was born and raised in Detroit and began working at the age of 14. He received a degree from Wayne State University and served as the chancellor of Academy of American Poet. He was named the U.S. poet laureate in 2011.

“He’s incredible. He puts his poetry into an artistic form that is really powerful,” Toste said. “His poems are so applicable to the Central Valley. He talks about things we have experience with.”

Her goal of community service is to make a difference, but this life-changing experience has made an everlasting difference in her perception of service learning.

“It has taught me to make a difference and change people’s lives every day,” Toste said. “But I ended up walking away with all these awesome experiences.”

Toste is unsure of whether she wants to work for the hospital after her volunteer services, but she plans on attending graduate school for speech pathology in hopes of one day getting to work with children.

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