Virginia Garcia brings more than health care to migrant farmworkers
For many, the summer rings with the promise of a vacation and idle relaxation under the long-awaited sunshine.
However, for migrant farmworkers who travel to Oregon each year from Mexico and Central America, summer means work.
It's a good, honest living — and the labor of migrant farmworkers puts food on the tables of millions of Americans. But that physically demanding labor in the oppressive heat leaves many migrant farmworkers susceptible to a number of medical ailments.
While in other parts of the country, these health issues might go unaddressed due to a lack of accessibility and resources, Washington County's Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center has worked tirelessly since its founding in 1975 to provide these much needed health services to the migrant community.
"People were really dedicated to their work," said Jean Mlynski, a registered nurse at Virginia Garcia, reflecting on seeing migrant farmworker patients when she first started with the clinic in 1984. "They were here to work as hard as they could and make as much as they could, and we were here to get their health on track so that they could go on and keep doing that."
While Virginia Garcia worked to overcome language and economic barriers that often prevent Oregon's migrant community from accessing health care, one major obstacle that still needed to be addressed was physical access to the clinic.
Then and now, many migrant workers don't own cars or have valid driver's licenses. Since the clinics are located in cities like Beaverton and Cornelius, and many of them live at or near their worksites in more rural parts of the Tualatin and Chehalem valleys, that means long bus rides that can take up the entire day and cut into work hours.
To address the transit barrier, in the 1980s, Virginia Garcia set out to go mobile and bring their service to the many migrant camps in Washington and Yamhill counties.
In the process of trying to address barriers with their mobile outreach program, Virginia Garcia nurses would come across barriers of their own.
"We couldn't go to the camps, originally," said Mlynski. "There were issues with the farmers who would say, 'This is our property, you can't come on it.'"
Despite the opposition, Virginia Garcia persisted and successfully argued for the right to provide services on private property.
"In the beginning, they used to go in their cars and just provide basic medical care by a nurse," said Virginia Garcia's community outreach manager, Ignolia Duyck, who has been with the health center now for 19 years.
Although they had won the right to visit the camps, Virginia Garcia faced yet another difficult task — earning the trust of the migrant farmers they were serving.
"'Who are you? Are you secretly undercover?'" Mlynski recalls some farmworkers asking in the earlier days of the outreach program, before Virginia Garcia had been well recognized in the migrant community.
Over time, consistent care and followthrough proved Virginia Garcia to be a trustworthy resource for the migrant community and promoted a respectful and friendly relationship between the clinic's staff members and their clients in the camps.
"We have families that when we first met them at the camp, the woman was pregnant, and now we see that her kid is already seven years old," said Duyck.
For her, seeing familiar faces come back year after year and catching up on what has changed since they last saw each other feels like seeing an old friend.
As the program expanded and outreach vehicles transitioned from personal cars to bigger vans, Virginia Garcia staff soon realized that they would need to upgrade to a mobile clinic to meet demands. In 2001, the nonprofit purchased its first mobile clinic, a used mobile dental clinic that was modified to provide medical care.
In its busiest years, Virginia Garcia's mobile clinic would visit as many as 25 migrant camps across Washington and Yamhill counties during the summer harvest season. Now, due to changes in crop rotations and increased mechanization, the mobile clinic visits just five migrant camps, serving about 800 migrant farmers.
"(The mobile clinic) gave us more tools and visibility and also helped us provide better care to our clients," Duyck remarked.
With a better vehicle to address clients' needs, Virginia Garcia began to expand, providing on-site education and offering more services, like vision and dental care, through community partnerships.
While at the camps, clinic staff take the opportunity to address newer health issues faced by migrant farm workers, like diabetes, by offering glucose testing, nutrition education and diabetes management education.
"Unfortunately, in order to have energy throughout the day and throughout the year, they drink a lot of soda and energy drinks," Duyck explained.
In addition to health education, partners like Winston University offer chiropractic services and teach workers about proper lifting techniques, while organizations like Legal Aid offer legal advising. Also present are labor organizations like Oregon Extension University and Work Force, there to offer further job opportunities.
With the involvement of community partners, Virginia Garcia's mobile outreach program has transformed from providing basic medical care into a one-stop shop for any number of potential issues faced my migrant workers.
In 2019, Virginia Garcia bought a new mobile clinic — replacing the former dental-turned-medical clinic with a vehicle made specially for medical outreach. With the new mobile clinic, Virginia Garcia will continue serving the migrant farmworkers in the summer, and staff hope to connect with other remote communities that they can serve throughout the year.
Virginia Garcia has always seen migrant farmworkers as vital members of the community and continues to fight for their right to services for the work they do that fills our grocery store shelves with produce.
"I don't want that people feel pity for the migrant farmworkers," Duyck said. "I just want that they respect them — for the job that they are doing, for how they are working hard, for how they are bringing the food to our tables."
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