Shawn Smith, Pharm D

Several days a week, Professor Shawn Smith, PharmD, drives to Victorville to lead a team of 40 healthcare and social service providers working together to help people experiencing homelessness find a path forward. 

The Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy graduate co-founded Symba Center, a faith-based, nonprofit, free clinic serving the High Desert region. 

Symba Center works out of a Victorville facility to provide solutions to meet the health and wellness needs of low-income, uninsured, and homeless populations. It utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to care including, behavioral health, substance use disorder counseling, case management, and housing navigation.

Victorville, a high desert community, has the second-highest concentration of homeless residents in San Bernardino County, second only to the city of San Bernardino. Like other cities, Victorville saw a spike in homelessness after the COVID-19 pandemic, jumping 33% in one year, according to a 2023 county report. Victorville has more than 600 homeless residents in the city — Loma Linda has 17. 

To address the full spectrum of issues leading to homelessness, the city of Victorville conceived and built The Wellness Center. It is the first non-congregate housing and healthcare facility of its kind in San Bernardino County and opened in December 2023.

The unique and innovative campus, on 4.5 acres of city-owned land, is vital in helping sheltered and unsheltered individuals stabilize and rebuild their lives. The center is a low-barrier emergency shelter, offering 110 non-congregate housing units, with wraparound support services, recuperative care, and a medical clinic on-site. The campus also includes a commercial kitchen, classroom space, recreational amenities, animal care, and office space for intense case management and support services designed to return people to stability.

The city of Victorville contracted the nonprofit Symba Center to provide medical care, behavioral health, and support services on campus. Nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and licensed therapists are available to treat most health-related issues.

Smith says many of the unsheltered have chronic diseases. “If left uncontrolled, they will be hospitalized and suffer from long-term complications — impacting their ability to maintain housing,” Smith said. “This community now has one place to get the services they need, be served, and serve others.” 

It Started in a Dorm Room

Smith, CEO of Symba Center, is an assistant professor at Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy. He teaches longitudinal physical assessment and tobacco cessation curriculum. 

The Wellness Center clinic is a practice site for his students. “I train and show them how to leverage community resources to provide services,” Smith said.

Since the pandemic, Symba Center has been at the forefront of healthcare in Victorville, bringing vaccines, wound care, and other medical services to shelters and encampments in the region. 

Today, Symba Center’s team provides healthcare at the Wellness Center’s dedicated clinic space, which Smith says is a stark contrast from seeing patients in homeless shelter closets or make-shift tents.

“We had always envisioned a community center where those who needed any social service could have it all in one place,” Smith said. “We didn’t know at the time what it would look like, where it would be, or when it would materialize, but we prayed our gifts would be used for good.” 

He and a classmate developed the concept of Symba in a Loma Linda University dorm room in 2016. “We wanted to see communities transformed through the integration of systems, excellence in provided services, and compassion for all people,” Smith said. “We believe people deserve better.”

His passion for serving vulnerable and underserved communities grew after going on several LLU-sponsored student mission trips to Belize, Brazil, and Romania. “Bringing healthcare to the doors of those who need it is the most rewarding experience in my life,” he said. “I found a mission field at home and directed all the inspiration from LLU mission trips and rotations to this clinic in Victorville.”

Like-Minds at Loma Linda University

Five Symba Center healthcare team members have more than a commitment to making man whole in common — they are also Loma Linda University graduates recruited by Smith.

Gaea Jamine Uppala, DNP, RN, from School of Nursing
Uppala and Smith share a mutual friend. Smith says he was particularly interested in adding her to the Symba Center healthcare team because her skills as a psychiatric nurse would be incredibly useful, as the unhoused may suffer from mental health issues. Although Uppala is employed elsewhere, she agreed to work at the clinic after prayerful consideration.

Darlene Tyler, PhD, FNP, MSN, from School of Nursing
Tyler has worked with homeless patients her entire career and says serving them is her life’s calling. She responded to Smith’s request for help and has been working part-time since the Wellness Center opened. 

Abhijeet Andrews, OT, from School of Allied Health Professions
He is the Community Development Director at the Wellness Center and works to build community relationships and marketing support. Andrews is an occupational therapist (OT) and enjoys helping people in practical ways. He meets with clients to teach and reinforce skills like hair brushing, teeth brushing, and other basic hygiene routines.

Joshua Wendt, MD, from School of Medicine
Wendt’s involvement in Street Medicine as a medical student at LLU prepared his heart for service with the Victorville clinic. Smith says he needed a physician to get things off the ground. He met Wendt through the music ministry at their church and asked him for help. Although Wendt was already working full-time and had other volunteering commitments, he agreed to help with the clinic as a volunteer until Smith could find another physician to serve as a permanent, full-time employee. In the meantime, Wendt sees patients via video visits.

Symba Center LLU grads

From left to right: Darlene Tyler, PhD, FNP, MSN; Abhijeet Andrews, OT; Shawn Smith, PharmD; Gaea Jamine Uppala, DNP, RN; Joshua Wendt, MD

Rooted in Faith

Smith attributes his life path and the people he’s met to God’s leading. “Of course, I put in the work every day, but many things have aligned that otherwise would have seemed impossible,” Smith said. “Loma Linda University not only taught me how to care for patients; it taught me how to ensure my practice is rooted in faith.” 

He believes his outlook would have been very different if he had attended another school. 

“LLU School of Pharmacy inspired me to continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ,” Smith said. “This calls for community transformation, to push the boundaries of what is — to see how pharmacists can be more innovative, on the forefront of providing healthcare for patients.”