Diseases

Local organizations aim to eliminate social barriers to minority health

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Founder of the educational program Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos Rita Paez sits among young girls as they do homework during an after-school program. The organization offers nutrition education and an exercise room for children. Michilea Patterson — Digital First Media

By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury

April is National Minority Health Month. How people live, play and work are three areas that have a great impact on the health of racial and ethnic populations in the area and across the United States.

Many of the gaps in the healthcare system are related to social determinants such as environment, poverty and access to healthy foods.

“Income, education level, sex, race, ethnicity, employment status, and sexual orientation are all related to health and health outcomes for a number of Americans,” according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press release.

Rita Paez is the founder of the organization Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos in Pottstown. The bilingual program offers educational and recreational activities to Latino families in the area at no cost to them. Paez started the cultural organization in 1997 when she noticed that many Latino youth didn’t have afterschool programs to participate in and she was concerned about the drop-out rate of students.

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Eight-year-old Jennifer Maldonado, on the right, and Rubi Mendez, 5, use kid-friendly exercise machines during a Latino after-school program in Pottstown.

“All the kids really make the difference,” Paez said.

She started teaching Latino children about their heritage and explaining the importance of education when it comes to the workforce. Paez said so far all of the children that have participated in the cultural program have gone on to work at professional jobs.

Since its beginning, Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos has expanded its offerings to families. Children get help with their homework as well as participate in several fitness activities. The program has Zumba exercise classes, a room with kid-friendly exercise equipment and even a soccer activity. As part of a Dubbling program, seniors and Latino youth interact with one another through dance and low-impact exercises like soccer.

“They learn from one another … and that interaction is really positive for both of them,” Paez said.

She started the Dubbling program because she said many children don’t have their grandparents with them in the U.S. and the seniors sometimes get lonely but have a lot of love to share. The program allows youth and seniors to form a relationship with one another and enjoy each other’s company. They even take regular walks at the park together.

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Jesus Maldonado, 6, lifts up some kid weights during a Latino after-school program in Pottstown where children get help with their schoolwork and learn about healthy nutrition.

There are also several activities for the Latino parents of the youth. Since many of the parents don’t speak English, many of these presentations are provided in Spanish. For seven weeks at a time, a Penn State Extension educator teaches nutrition classes to the families. Paez said participants learn the importance of label reading and portion sizes. They also learn that it’s healthy to drink water regularly. Nutrition isn’t the only education that adults receive. There are also presentations on various immigration issues such as abuse, available scholarships and the different ways to obtain a visa. Parents can even attend real estate programs to learn how to purchase their first home at discounted prices.

A nonprofit Federal Qualified Health Center in Chester County is also using bilingual services to impact the health of their community. La Comunidad Hispana (LCH) has a location in Kennett Square and Oxford. Laura Mackiewicz, community engagement manager of LCH, said 90 percent of the community they serve in Kennett Square are Latino while in the Oxford location; about 30 percent are African American and about 30 percent are Latino.

“Our biggest thing is that we’re here for everyone,” she said.

The health center provides all of their services in English and Spanish. The health services organization in Kennett Square was founded as a result of the mushroom farming boom during the 1970s, Mackiewicz said. When the industry expanded into the area, there was a great need for labor so many individuals came from other countries. Since there were no services to ensure the health of the immigrants arriving in the county, LCH fulfilled this need.

LCH provides the community with educational, health and social services. There are citizenship classes and English classes. The center also provides workforce development by helping people with job placements. Patients are also screened for any behavioral health issues.

“Anyone that comes to LCH gets depression screenings and some general screenings to test the status of someone’s mental health,” Mackiewicz said. “I think depression anxiety specific to the group we’re serving is huge because there’s a culture shock.”

She said it’s very scary to move to a new country and not know how anything works or be able to speak the main language. She said transportation is also a big challenge for minorities which can make it difficult to receive healthcare. One of the ways LCH is trying to address this barrier is by staying open later, Mackiewicz said.

LCH President and Chief Executive Officer Alisa Jones said when people can’t get to healthcare and social services then that’s a big area of need that must be addressed. She said the health center has always tried to serve people in the area they live, work and play.

“Having access to healthcare in your neighborhood is one of the ways to reduce disparities in minority health,” Jones said.

Jones said minority health disparities are a complex issue and there’s no one answer but it’s important to address social determinants such as transportation, the environment, income and safety.

“These things are essential as a way to address disparities both in our community in Chester County and our nation,” she said.

Jones said some social determinants such as poverty and finances can prevent people from obtaining health insurance. LCH provides services to those that are uninsured and bills people based on their income and family size. Jones said without organizations that serve the uninsured then minority populations have extremely difficult economic barriers to health.

“If you can’t get basic primary healthcare to prevent diseases then diseases just get more and more serious, more complicated, more difficult to manage and more expensive.” She said. “It’s financially devastating to get sick.”

There are other programs and health centers throughout the region with the mission to help eliminate some of the health disparities among minorities. Centro Hispano Daniel Torres is a Hispanic center that serves the Greater Reading area. Their purpose is to improve the quality of life of the Latino population. The Delaware County Community College will have a Latino Conference today from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The conference is part of the college’s commitment to quality education for Latino students in Delaware and Chester Counties.

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