Mercer event reaches out to underserved population of Middle Georgia

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Dr. Jose Pino, center, talks with an attendee at the Hispanic Health Fair in February.

An event organized by a Mercer professor and students for the past three years has aimed to fill a void in Middle Georgia. On Feb. 9, about 60 people attended the Hispanic Health Fair at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.

The project was started by Dr. Jose Pino, associate professor of Spanish, and received support from the University’s Research That Reaches Out initiative.

Dr. Pino added a service-learning component to his classes in 2015, and many students helped the Hispanic population through work with community agencies. This spurred Dr. Pino and a group of his students to conduct a survey to identify the main needs of the Hispanic community. The survey participants overwhelmingly indicated they wanted a fair where they could have access to health providers and information in Spanish.

Lack of financial resources and insurance, language barriers, fear of being reported to immigration, and not knowing where to go for health services can keep Hispanics from getting the medical care they need, Dr. Pino said.

Senior John Franco, a chemistry major and biology minor, got involved in the fair last year after seeing research showing how the Hispanic community in Middle Georgia is growing at a much faster rate than in the rest of the state.

A woman received a dental check during the Hispanic Health Fair in February.

ABOVE: A woman received a dental check during the Hispanic Health Fair in February. TOP PHOTO: Dr. Jose Pino, center, talks with an attendee at the fair. (Photos by Leah Yetter)

“The language barrier is sometimes greater than other physical barriers might seem,” Franco said. “All these people are coming in, but we don’t know anything about their health needs. Right now, they are still a small fraction of the population, but eventually they’ll be a huge part. What will then become important is to address those needs as they come up.”

Similar to previous years, this year’s event had about 30 participating vendors. Translation services were provided by advanced-level Spanish students from Mercer and health providers, Dr. Pino said. Many attendees spent a couple hours perusing the booths, Franco said.

“Some people have driven two hours to the fair to be here, which shows that there is definitely a need,” said senior Thomas Bridgewater, an international business major and Spanish minor. “It’s hard for them to find doctors who will readily see them if they are underinsured or who speak Spanish. Having the opportunity to see somebody who has that knowledge and can understand you is a huge pull.”

Community members could see a physician, pediatrician and chiropractor; receive dental checks and instructions; do screenings for cholesterol, glucose, blood pressure, prostate cancer and breast cancer; get information from community agencies; learn about healthy eating and fresh foods from Community Health Works’ Veggie Van; and participate in a Zumba class. Games were offered for children, and vendors gave away goodies.

“We wanted it to be a fun atmosphere,” Franco said. “It’s not just about going by and getting your blood pressure checked and stuff. We wanted to make it fun, not just a checkup at the doctor.”

Student and faculty volunteers for the project have included those in the Mercer Service Scholars, Spanish, medicine, psychology, pharmacy and global health programs, Dr. Pino said.

A Mercer student plays with children at the Hispanic Health Fair.

A Mercer student plays with children at the fair.

Junior Victoria Bahena, a double-major in Spanish and biology, decided to help with the fair her freshman year to fulfill a required service component for a Spanish class, and she helped organize the 2018 and 2019 events. Franco and Bridgewater worked on the fair as part of their Service Scholars projects. Bridgewater, who got involved this past fall, focused on the healthy eating aspect and Franco on the research component.

“We are trying to help,” Dr. Pino said. “My students are practicing their Spanish, helping the community and doing research. They are going beyond reaching out to the community.”

Data from a survey completed by fair attendees will be compiled and analyzed, and those findings will be presented to the community, Bridgewater said. The results will help determine the impact of the fair, how the team proceeds in years to come and if other intervention methods are needed, Franco said.

This year’s fair was held a month earlier than in previous years, and attendance was down, with about 60 attendees compared to around 150 at past events. However, the organizers were still pleased with the outcome and received a lot of positive feedback, Dr. Pino said. It was worth the effort to be able to provide people with information and resources they didn’t have previously.

Dr. Pino and a few of his students are researching the possibility of starting a Hispanic health clinic in Macon, which would provide more continuous care than a yearly fair.

“Sometimes underserved people in locations don’t get the necessary information and screenings they need,” Bahena said. “Hopefully, we can make this into something permanent and helpful for the community.”

Students have reached out to the community through their research and had articles related to the fair published in The Telegraph in Macon and the Journal of the Georgia Public Health Association. They’ve also done presentations for Mercer’s BEAR Day and for Service Scholars and Spanish projects, Dr. Pino said.

Children participate in an activity at the Hispanic Health Fair in February.

Children participate in a planting activity.

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Andrea Honaker