UM, Community Partners Organize Bilingual Health Fair in Pontotoc

Spanish-speaking community members invited to receive free screenings, health services

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi faculty, staff and students are working with health care and public service providers to start meeting the health care needs of Pontotoc’s underserved Spanish-speaking community.

The UM McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, as well as representatives from the School of Pharmacy, are partnering with providers to host a bilingual health fair at the Pontotoc Gateway Pavilion from 9 a.m. to noon July 24.

Breaking the Language Barrier

The fair will be open to both English and Spanish speakers and will provide participants with COVID-19 vaccines alongside free cardiovascular screenings, including blood sugar levels, lipid panels, hemoglobin A1c tests and blood pressure tests, as well as nutrition counseling.

Participants also can receive free mental health screenings, dental health advice, health insurance counseling, assistance for seniors and lead testing of well water.

“It is well documented that Spanish-speaking communities do not receive the same quality of health care in the U.S. as those that speak English,” said Noa Valcarcel-Ares, UM instructional assistant professor of pharmacology, who hosted a bilingual health fair in Oxford in 2019 with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

“There is a need to welcome the Spanish-speaking community and let them know they should be able to receive the same quality of health care, even if they don’t speak English.”

The language barrier extends to navigating the U.S. health care system, which for most nonnative residents is also an unfamiliar process, Valcarcel-Ares said.

“For Spanish speakers who are first-generation U.S. residents, it’s difficult to adapt to the new system,” she said. “I very much experienced that when I came to the U.S., which is why I’m very glad we will also be able to connect people with services related to the health care system that can help them with applications and insurance.”

Students from Valcarcel-Ares’ Spanish for Pharmacists course also will be on site to help provide bilingual access to testing.

Strengthening Communities through Partnership

The health fair might not have come together were it not for the many on- and off-campus organizations involved in orchestrating and executing the event.

Jilkiah Bryant first heard about Pontotoc’s language gap through her work as area coordinator for health and well-being with the UM Office of Community Engagement. Bryant hosted a roundtable discussion attended by both Valcarcel-Ares and Karen Allison, community development coordinator for MississippiCare.

“Karen came to one of our roundtable discussions and talked about how Pontotoc has a large Spanish-speaking population but health care providers who don’t speak Spanish,” Bryant said. “They have to pull their children out of school to translate in the doctor’s office.”

Since Bryant also serves as a Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, or CEED, scholar through the McLean Institute, she connected the growing working group with Laura Martin, the institute’s associate director.

“Through M Partner, the North Mississippi VISTA Project and the CEED scholar program, we can be a conduit between our communities and campus,” said Martin, who works with numerous Pontotoc nonprofits through the institute’s M Partner program.

“Our community partners are so in touch with the service opportunities and needs in our community through their daily work, and our colleagues are excited to be a part of something bigger that fulfills the greater calling of the university.”

The health fair’s organizational and promotional expenses will be covered by MississippiCare, a nonprofit health care provider that offers behavioral health, women’s health, nutrition resources, cardiology and primary care, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.

Allison said her organization would never be able to provide this many services and this level of testing without the partnerships of the university and other community nonprofits.

“We couldn’t have afforded to offer the kind of testing the university is able to provide without them partnering with us,” she said. “And Laura’s knowledge of the Pontotoc community through M Partner has been invaluable in putting me in touch with the right people.”