Health center rooted in helping migrant workers

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MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Family — and fate — both played a part in bringing Tina Burns to the Shenandoah Community Medical Center, a decision that she made 31 years ago which still brings her great joy today.

After returning home to be with her aging parents, Burns said her mother suggested she consider applying for a Spanish interpreter job at the medical center. Since she'd majored in Spanish, Burns — who had previously been working in real estate, buying and renovating properties — not only applied, but got the job and kept it for about a decade.

Recalling those early days, Burns said she will never forget going out as part of the migrant health program and meeting workers who were housed in local orchard camps.

"We really started as a migrant health center, because Congress had allocated realizing they didn't have access to health care for several reasons such as the language barrier, lack of transportation and money. Private practices just couldn't absorb them," she said.

Some Berkeley County Health Department nurses were determined to make a difference locally, including Doris Hughes, who was the new community health center's first director after writing a grant for its funding, Burns said.

"It was the best job I've ever had because the patients were so nice and really appreciated the help we were giving them. And the fact that someone was speaking their native language to them was also important so that they could feel like someone understood them," she said.

At that time, there were more orchards locally, because apples were a major industry and a greater number of workers were needed here, Burns said. A lot of them came from Mexico, some from Haiti and Jamaica as well as a few from other countries in Latin America, she said.

In the early days, this program covered the Eastern Panhandle as well as parts of Maryland and Virginia. Its employees still go into about 30 camps annually, including Berkeley and Jefferson counties as well as into central Virginia because the "bulk of the migrant workers has now shifted south because there are still more orchards there," Burns said.

While it wasn't unusual to see 2,500 workers or more in a season, team members are still busy seeing an average of at least 1,000 workers, she said.

Burns said growers voluntarily give their permission for medical visits, and also provide information on how many workers are being housed as well as their native language. Workers also participate voluntarily and there aren't prohibitions about serving undocumented individuals.

Trust is an important part of this effort, but that gets easier as workers feel more comfortable with these visits, she said.

"Unless you are from here, it might be hard to imagine how important agriculture and orchards were, but I grew up in Leetown and there were women who would go to work each fall in the Musselman's processing plant helping make applesauce. That's how a lot of country women got Christmas money," Burns said.

Teams — including a driver, nurses and bilingual outreach workers — navigated lots of back roads to reach the camps, which typically consisted of a cinder block building with a concrete floor where workers were housed, she said.

While the housing hasn't changed much over the years, there aren't nearly as many women and children in the camps — a change that's for the better, Burns said.

"Always having to pack up and move wasn't easy for the children, plus it was disruptive to their education. And they would sometimes lack the medical and shot records needed to get into school," she said.

She said the eastern stream of migrant workers tends to follow a seasonal calendar, beginning with spending winters in Florida picking citrus and other crops. Some come here in March to trim fruit trees, before heading to New Jersey to pick blueberries and then returning locally for fruit crops beginning with peaches in July. As the season progresses, they are busy with apples and many leave the area by early November, Burns said.

A former prisoner-of-war camp used during World War II and located in Frederick County, Virginia, has 19 block buildings that still serve as a large camp for a "conglomerate" of fruit growers, she said.

"Some of the individuals who are working here are actually housed there," Burns said, adding that the majority of workers arrive by Labor Day to help harvest apples.

Although she no longer serves in this interpreter capacity, Burns — who performs a number of duties, including director of clinical recruitment — hasn't forgotten this program and still keeps up to date with it.

She's proud the program has not only continued, but branched out by providing medical education as well as services. For example, last year's focus was on eye care and ways to avoid injuries, and the current emphasis centers on nutritional education, Burns said.

Perhaps Burns' public service career wasn't a total surprise, especially since her father, who was employed as an economist at the Pentagon, spoke 12 languages.

"It was just fascinating to learn about these cultures and how their language relates to it. I could never really say just how much I've enjoyed doing this kind of work," she said.

After having served as an interpreter on two missionary trips to the Dominican Republic, Burns was more convinced than ever that the migrant outreach program is vitally important.

"I just felt like I was back in the United States doing our own migrant work. It was exactly the same, but the needs were greater and the resources fewer," she said.

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Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/

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