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Sligo Community Lives Out Health Expertise With Neighbors

Story and photos by Rajmund Dabrowski
Published 8/8/2011

A little girl responds excitedly to the puppets and puppeteers from the Washington Adventist University who shared health, hygiene and exercise messages. Photo by Rebecca Brillhart

When the invitation came asking them to provide healthcare services, something that Seventh-day Adventists are known for, Potomac Conference’s Sligo church community in Takoma Park, Md., was ready. “We knew that this is where we should be—in the community so … we gladly responded,” said Rebecca Brillhart, associate pastor. The invitation came from CASA de Maryland, a community organization responding to the needs of the thousands of mainly Central Americans arriving in the Washington, D.C.-area after fleeing wars and strife in their countries of origin.

On Sabbath, August 6, Adventists in the area, including those from Washington Adventist Hospital, Washington Adventist University and members of the Sligo church provided a community health fair themed “To Your Health!” or “A Tu Salud!” They gathered at the McCormick-Goodhart Mansion, which is the headquarters of the CASA de Maryland Multicultural Center in Langley Park, a stone’s throw away from Takoma Park.

The center facilitates, among other activities educational programs, language classes and legal services to what it calls the “ethnically diverse drastically underserved communities of Langley Park.”

Taking the summer heat in stride, nearly 300 visitors came seeking health attention, information and assessments, and 120 volunteers turned a “neighbors meeting neighbors” community event into a day to remember.

The doctors, nurses, dentists and their assistants were joined by social workers, community activists, puppeteers, face-painters, site guides, volunteers serving watermelon slices and other fresh fruit or pretzels and the steel band from Sligo church.

Add the CASA de Maryland partners whose personnel were more than busy seeing a full four-hours of hustle and bustle, and happy faces of those who came and received health screenings and medical assistance.

For Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, the partnership with the Adventist community spoke of a response to a real and acute need in this multicultural community. A partnership, which he termed as “extraordinary,” was “very essential, because 80 percent of the Latino and immigrant communities … have no access to healthcare, and now they are going to have an opportunity to receive it.”
High Sabbath

The organizers were eager to explain to volunteers that the Langley Park event was “not just Sligo’s event. It is ‘owned’ and shared by our community.” Volunteers were also cautioned that because they were on other people’s turf they are guests, and this is a time to listen, observe and realize that Sabbath-keeping may not be on people’s radar.

Yet, Charles Tapp, Sligo church’s senior pastor, was plain in explaining his attitude toward this “high Sabbath,” as he called it. “We [have taken] the ministry of health to our Langley Park neighbors in the form of a health fair. I am of the opinion that the fact that Jesus’ healing miracles were performed on the Sabbath was not by accident, but I believe that Christ wanted to show the relationship between the Sabbath and the healing of one’s mind and body.”

“In essence Jesus wanted to show … that the Sabbath was a day to set men free. Now that’s what I call a ‘high’ Sabbath,” Tapp concluded.

People Are Scared

She was perhaps 10 or twelve. A plumpish and feisty girl, she was not afraid to ask a pedestrian safety policeman, who was enjoying a snack, what he was doing at the fair. “Did you come to arrest us? Are you going to arrest those men sitting on the wall over there?” she asked. The officer was happy to engage in a friendly exchange to appease her inquisitive mind.

Tensions and feelings of suspicion run high in this predominantly immigrant community and as he was observing dozens of activity areas at the health fair, Torres of CASA de Maryland referred to members of the community as being under duress since many of them are affected by anti-immigration rhetoric, decisions and actions. The community he looks after is “very scared. They are very afraid of the police,” he commented.
Learning About Our Neighbors
Sharon Ford, Sligo church’s Health Action co-chair, who coordinated the volunteer service, said, “We had to double in our tasks, as translators were in demand.” She said the puppeteers from the Washington Adventist University were a “heaven-sent two-shift volunteers.”

“After entertaining the kids with a skit on how to sneeze, they went to interpret for the Spanish-speaking visitors,” she added.

When stage puppets promoted getting exercise, groups of children, bags full of healthy snacks, tissues and hand sanitizers, ran to an area full of neon hula hoops for an endurance contest. One little girl enjoyed the action so much she asked if she could take the hoop home with the rest of her free loot. “I’m sorry,” the volunteer emcee, Elaine Kelly, told her, “but this is borrowed equipment. Maybe you can ask for a hula hoop for Christmas this year.” The little girl shook her head sadly. “No, senora, at my house we don’t get real presents at Christmas. My mother wraps cereal boxes for all of us.”

The exchange provided volunteers with a new understanding of the level of poverty in the community and is inspiring plans to provide ample hoops through donations to CASA for future use by the neighborhood children.

Stories were what many of the volunteers took away from the event. Sharon Ford tells of a group of young men sitting on a nearby surrounding wall ledge listening to music. When a CASA employee encouraged them to go inside for a check-up, one of them responded, “We are afraid to find out what is wrong with us.”

“It’s like taking a car to a mechanic. You find out what you need to fix,” he and others laughed.

“I never found out if they actually got inside. But it shows that we need to be present more often and be seen as helping the community,” Ford said. The health hair was of importance for one patient who was taken to the emergency room, and for several others requesting further blood screenings.

Was the community health fair a success? Pastor Rebecca Brillhart explained that it has taken the church years to befriend members of this largely Spanish- and French-speaking community to work with them in different ways or side-by-side in other initiatives in the community. “Finally it’s our turn to be invited to come and be in their space, in their territory, at their home, and to serve them.”

Seeing a line of mothers with babies, children and young people, waiting to see a doctor, she said how elated she was, “because I know the need is so great. Most of these individuals … haven’t seen a physician not just for six months or a year, or maybe five years, or even 10 years, because they have been unable to pay for medical services here as they are trying to build life here in the United States.”

For Pedro Ventura the health hair was heaven sent. “This is very important to me to check my health. I haven’t been to a doctor in three years,” he said as Pat Hutchinson, RN, explained to him how to interpret the results of his blood pressure check. For Pedro, and his brother Gregorio, who received similar assistance from nurse Keda Jordonne, the attendance at the health fair was time well spent.

Among several physicians was Dr. Cossette Jamieson, a member of Sligo church who is practicing at the Washington Hospital Center. She saw several patients whose common need was to control their blood pressure. “They have no resources to see a doctor and get advice and medications to control it,” she said after her two hours of seeing patients at the CASA event. She expressed a view, also articulated by other medical personnel, that there is much more that can be done for this community and with greater regularity.

“Perhaps on a smaller scale we could provide medical care to this community. We need to reach out to them. There is a great need to respond to,” Dr. Jamieson commented.

Speaking a day after the CASA de Maryland event, Ford said, “We were able to connect with so many people. In just one hour our dentists provided 80 dental screenings and the blood pressure line was not getting shorter. It was so good to be with the people within their community. It gave us a new appreciation of the needs and how well we were received,” she commented. “We need to consider doing it again.”