Valdosta Daily Times

June 23, 2013

South Georgia Farmworker Health Project makes yearly visit

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

LAKE PARK — When it began, it was run out of the back of a car.

It was started by an Emory professor named Tom Himelick. His students were interested in farmworker health. Himelick filled his trunk with supplies and his seats with students, pointed the car south, and they set off.

This was the founding of the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project, a project that slowly grew as the years went on. Fully funded by fundraising, the project now boasts hundreds of workers who, once a year, all head south to spend a week in Bainbridge and a week near the border of Lowndes and Echols Counties.

They offer free health services and health education to any farm workers who visit them, seeing up to 1,700 patients a year.This past week was the project’s yearly visit to Lowndes and Echols.

The volunteers come from Emory University and Mercer University, as well as local volunteers, with 90 percent of the volunteers being physician assistant students at Emory.

Leading those students is Terry Mize, director of admissions for the Physicians Assistants program at Emory. Mize got involved with the project not long after Himelick and has worked with it every year until this year, his last.

“It’s hard to know what kind of impact we have on the people we see,” said Mize. “Some of the people we see have never seen a medical provider before ... but after 17 years of doing this project, we’ve built up a degree of trust. There are still barriers though. To see us, people have to not work for the day, have to find transportation to us. We go to where they live and where they worship to make it more convenient for them.”

Part of going to where they live means going to the Migrant Farmworkers Clinic in Echols County. The clinic was started in 1991 by the Brothers of the Holy Cross and was then taken up by Public Health. Thanks to a yearly grant, the clinic is able to provide medical services to migrant workers who don’t have the time or the transportation to seek medical care. With three examination rooms, a pharmacy and a lab that can handle basic jobs, the clinic is able to serve thousands of patients each year. To qualify, patients have to either be American citizens or have documentation, and receive the majority of their income through farm work.

“We focus on preventative care,” said Julissa Clapp, Clinic Coordinator. “We talk to them, educate them about potential health problems: Diabetes, STDs, heat exhaustion. We try to prevent a minor problem from developing into a major problem.”

Along with their clinic services, they go out in the fields, meeting workers as they work. The clinic’s level of service and dedication to patients has built up trust between them throughout the years, making it an ideal place for the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project to set up camp.

On site, Mize and his team offer a number of services: blood pressure, hypertension and sugar level checks, sex protection, toothbrushes and oral health education for kids. In a day, they might see anywhere between 60 and 130 individuals.

“We’re trying to provide the care that they need with the resources we have,” said Mize.

Some of them come with skeletomuscular complaints, a result of heavy, repetitive labor. Others come with something more life-threatening.

“One year, we had a gentlemen in his 50s who had been wearing the same pair of cowboy boots for weeks,” said Susy Alfonso, a family doctor who has been volunteering for the project for a decade. “We could tell his feet were swollen and infected, but the only way we could get the boots off was to cut them off. He refused because they were the only pair of shoes he owned. We finally got him to agree when we told him he could take any pairs of boots that we had.”

Something as simple as a pair of shoes makes a big difference. Consider the story of a young man who walked from Texas to Georgia for employment. With his feet clad only in a pair of flip-flops, he arrived with his feet swollen to the size of basketballs.

“Some workers come to us with only the clothes on their back,” said Tracy Myers,  a professor with Valdosta State University’s Women and Gender Studies department who collects food and clothing donations year-round to bolster the clinic.

Support from VSU faculty isn’t limited to Myers. There’s Miryam Espinosa-Dulanto, a Spanish professor who offers her services as a translator. And there’s Mike Meachem, a sociology professor who works as a volunteer therapist. Between the economy being the way it is and the stress farm workers face, Meachem sees a number of patients struggling with depression.

Nor is it just VSU faculty. VSU students with the Marriage and Family Therapy program were out on site on Thursday, the last day of this year’s project.

“A lot of what we see is trauma-focused,” said Dana Hudson. “Grief, anxiety, depression.”

“The mental, emotional things, if they’re not treated, they can start to manifest in physical symptoms,” said Rachel Flickinger.

The Haven, the local women’s shelter was also there.

“It’s our first year here, but we’re starting a new outreach with the clinic,” said Yuri Reed with The Haven.

“Of course, some of the people we see need follow-up care,” said Alfonso. “It’s a godsend, really, to have the clinic right here where farmworkers can get that care.”

“You have to have a heart to volunteer,” said Clapp. “You have to have skills and patience, but most importantly, you have to have the love.”

Those are all things Mariela Garcia can claim. Garcia grew up working on farms with her mother and grandmother, harvesting bell peppers, eggplants, raspberries and cherry tomatoes. Now a student at North Florida Community College with plans to go into nursing, Garcia volunteered this year as a translator for the project.

“Since I’ve been there, it makes me more relatable,” said Garcia. “I know how hard it is for people to change their habits, to change how they work. I know how it feels.”