The theme of National Health Center Week this year - Celebrating America’s Health Centers: The Key to Healthier Communities - is meant to recognize the ways in which health centers serve as the foundation of health within their community. As we kickoff this incredible week of celebration, we have designated days within the week to showcase key elements of success within the Health Center Program. Today, during Agricultural Worker Health Day, we are highlighting all of the health centers that serve our nation’s agricultural workers. As agricultural workers continue to contribute billions of dollars annually to our country’s fruit and vegetable industry, health centers provide the support they need in order to access health care and overcome many of the health vulnerabilities working in the fields entails. In this blog we’re hearing from Lance Goller, Advocacy and Community Initiatives Coordinator, at Blue Ridge Community Health Services (BRCHS). Lance will discuss Blue Ridge Health’s impact on its community, in particular BRCHS’s advocacy and outreach for their agricultural worker population.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and Blue Ridge Health’s work for its agricultural worker population.
I lived in Latin America for seven years and grew familiar with the challenges vulnerable communities faced. After returning to the US, I’ve worked in communities in NYC, Northern CA, and Charlotte, NC before moving to Western NC about two years ago, and each faces its own unique combination of social determinants of health and barriers to access to care. The counties we serve in Western North Carolina require thousands of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers helping to produce apples, tomatoes, other fruits and vegetables, and Christmas trees. Blue Ridge Health provides health care to about 3,000 agricultural workers every year.
Tell us about some of the specific barriers the agricultural workers in your community face in accessing health care and how you at Blue Ridge Health work to meet the unique health needs of the community you serve.
Many of the agricultural workers that we serve live in remote areas with little or no public transportation. They frequently live in overcrowded mobile homes in poor condition and may lack necessities. Therefore, one of the first services our outreach team provides to agricultural workers who are new to our community is mattresses, clothing, and food – we do all this before even discussing health. This creates trust, and from there our outreach staff can provide health education and discuss the services provided at our clinics.
We also provide transportation to and from our main clinic for agricultural workers. We make every effort to see them that day, even if their condition would not normally be urgent enough for a “walk-in” appointment, because we know they may not be able to return on another occasion. We also conduct four yearly “Clínicas del Campo” to reach out to agricultural workers who may be unaware of how to access health care. At the clinicas we do basic health screenings and offer a visit with a physician. Last year almost everyone we screened needed dental care – some had never been to a dentist.
Blue Ridge Health currently has one full-time outreach worker, and this year we also had two summer interns from Student Action with Farmworkers help during peak season. Our outreach worker has been working in outreach for almost 24 years and knows many of the growers and workers personally. Because he is so trusted in the community, many agricultural workers will call him as soon as they arrive in the area. In order to maintain this knowledge and organize our outreach, we are working on a mapping data collection project to help us track migrant sites and when migrant workers come and leave each year.
Can you tell us about a specific experience you’ve had that has highlighted the value of Blue Ridge Health to the community?
Recently I had a chat with a man who was sitting on a park bench in my neighborhood. The man was homeless (or at the very least, in a precarious living situation). We started discussing some issues affecting housing in our area, and I asked if he had any challenges taking care of his health. His response surprised me: “You know, just about everything in my life is difficult, but the one thing I don’t have to worry about is my health. I go to the clinic on 7th Avenue, and they take great care of me. I really like my doctor and the other people that work there.” At that point, I was proud to tell him that I worked for Blue Ridge Health, which opened up that clinic on 7th Avenue about a year and a half ago. As I named some of the staff that worked there, he praised them and repeated what great care he received there. I really felt what privilege it is to work for an organization that cares so much for the most vulnerable in our community.
What program or service are you most proud of at Blue Ridge Health?
What I brag about the most when I’m talking to people about Blue Ridge Health is our commitment to see everyone regardless of ability to pay. And our patient flow reflects that commitment. Most private practices require you to make any payments up front, before you get seen. We provide care and then don’t charge until they are ready to leave. Their financial situation will not affect quality of the care they receive.
Why are you passionate about the work you do and as an advocate for community health centers?
I have had very positive experiences with health centers ever since I began working in the field of health care access over ten years ago, often referring people to local health centers for care. Eventually I became a patient myself. I had one of the best doctors I’ve ever had! So I made it a goal to work with a health center in the future.
Now I have personally seen how health centers are filling a huge need for health care, both in cities and in rural areas, and not only provide care to those who need it most, they do it well.
Learn more about Blue Ridge Health at brchs.com.