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Health fair opens resources to Omaha’s indigenous communities with aid of Creighton health professions volunteers

Volunteers from the Creighton health professions programs helped members of the local indigenous communities navigate various health resources during the Indigenous Peoples Health Fair, Feb. 18, 2017.As one of 2,000 Maya living in Omaha, Luis Marcos notes a peculiar irony in the recent uptick of local agencies and volunteers helping refugees get access to health care and other social services.

“It’s a wonderful outpouring of support for the refugee community, certainly, and we are so glad to see it,” he said. “But it’s also interesting to us, as indigenous peoples who have been here for thousands of years, to see that some of those same services can be difficult for our community to access. Even for indigenous peoples living in urban areas, there’s an isolation.”

Feb. 18, Marcos, in his capacity as ambassador of the Mayan government to the Omaha Nation, surveyed a scene at OneWorld Community Health in South Omaha making inroads toward connecting indigenous people from across the Omaha area with health care services. The effort, which saw about 90 people served at the fair, is the result of a partnership between Creighton University, OneWorld, and two indigenous peoples’ organizations, the Comunidad Pixan Ixim and the Big Elk Native American Center.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Health Fair, in its second year, is an outgrowth of Creighton’s Maya Community Health Collaborative (MCHC) based in the School of Medicine. Feb. 18, more than 100 Creighton volunteers — students, faculty and staff from the School of Medicine, the College of Nursing, the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, the School of Dentistry and the School of Law — came together to open pathways of communication and treatment among members of the area’s indigenous communities.

“This really has been something entirely driven by the community,” said Greg Wittenburg, BS’10, a second-year Creighton medical student also helping organize the fair. “The impetus hasn’t been how we, as Creighton health professions students and faculty, can show the community what they need, but hearing what the community itself sees as its major challenges. In the ‘For and with others’ value at Creighton, we’re trying to put the emphasis on the ‘with.’”

Volunteers from the Creighton health professions programs helped members of the local indigenous communities navigate various health resources during the Indigenous Peoples Health Fair, Feb. 18, 2017.At this year’s four-hour fair held at OneWorld’s South Omaha headquarters in the old Livestock Exchange Building, indigenous people underwent health and wellness checks, had vital stats registered, spoke with professionals on various health concerns, received immunizations and dental screenings, and were generally encouraged by the resources being made available around the area.

“The health fair is a collaborative Creighton enterprise that brings the Jesuit principle of caring for the whole person, cura personalis, to life,” said Alexandra Abbate, a second-year medical student who coordinated this year’s fair and spent the day in its nerve center. “The entire process starting with the very first planning meeting all the way up through the day of the fair has been a collaborative process that brought us as Creighton students together with members of the Maya and Native American communities in order to see these efforts to fruition and to adequately assess the needs of these communities.”

The focus, Abbate said, is a little different from a typical health fair, in that follow-up was the watchword of the day.

“We strive to maintain contact with those who attend the fair and ultimately connect them with primary care,” Abbate said. “Many who came to the fair were immediately entered into OneWorld’s system on site and were able to make an appointment for follow-up. Our hope is that we can provide the resources and support necessary to make continuity of care a reality for those who attended the fair.”

The Maya community in Omaha, both Wittenburg and Marcos said, does not often identify with the larger Latino community. Outreach to the area’s immigrants from Central America often leaves the Maya people feeling on the outside looking in.

When John Stone, PhD, of the Center for Health Policy and Ethics first started the MCHC four years ago, it was to begin a process of making sure Omaha’s Maya were not overlooked. Stone and a coterie of medical students started monthly listening and education sessions with the Maya, which blossomed into the health fair and other initiatives.

Volunteers from the Creighton health professions programs helped members of the local indigenous communities navigate various health resources during the Indigenous Peoples Health Fair, Feb. 18, 2017.Fourth-year medical student Michelle Marieni was a student co-founder of MCHC and said the connection between Creighton and the Maya has grown strong as a result of early steps taken to listen and appreciate the community’s concerns. Now, both the University and the Maya are working together to address those challenges.

“As students, we have learned so much from being with the Maya,” Marieni said. “Instead of simply teaching the community about health, we have also been educated by the Maya people to discover the true needs of the community. Pulling in all of the health care disciplines, we’ve been able to make this health fair a true all-Creighton commitment.”

Renee Schlatz, a student in Creighton’s accelerated nursing program, was part of a large contingent of nursing students who were doing blood pressure checks and diabetic foot screenings.

Just doing the little things, she said, can make huge differences in a person’s total health, and she was encouraged by the number of attendees asking questions and finding answers.

“Creighton’s approach to public health is right there in the mission of a faith that does justice,” Schlatz said. “You can see that being put into action here today because the people who are coming through are being cared for. Time is being taken with everyone.”

Also on hand to meet with attendees on health-related matters such as domestic violence and women’s issues, the Women’s Center for Advancement sent a group to the fair, and students from the Creighton School of Law were available to talk about health care and immigration rights.

Volunteers from the Creighton health professions programs helped members of the local indigenous communities navigate various health resources during the Indigenous Peoples Health Fair, Feb. 18, 2017.Many in the Maya community have been part of a wave of people seeking respite from violence that has ravaged their indigenous homelands in Mexico and Guatemala and some aren’t sure about the U.S.’s response to their presence.

“A big part of health care today is knowing your rights,” said Rachel Lee, a third-year law student who once lived in Guatemala with a Mayan family. “We’re here providing information to documented and undocumented people alike, keeping them aware of what’s happening. It’s personal for a lot of us who are here today volunteering. Creighton cares about social justice and this is where social justice is happening.”

In that regard, the fair was yet another good way for Creighton students to apply classroom lessons in a real-world clinical and social setting.

“We can get away from the books, from the lectures for a little while and put the emphasis on outreach,” said Briggs Hoyt, a first-year medical student helping to coordinate volunteers at the fair. “Creighton prepares you for the profession but it also prepares you to go out into the world and find ways to do some good.”

Next steps for MCHC and the fair, Wittenburg said, will be to continue maintaining an open door to the Maya community and other indigenous peoples in the Omaha area. With this major event capturing roughly 100 attendees both years, hopes are that word will spread and more people will begin to seek the resources that Creighton and other institutions are offering.

“In the end, the goal is not just to provide services and education, although that’s where we start,” Wittenburg said. “The big thing is to see people empowered and empowering their community to get themselves healthy and the entire community focused on health. The health fair does a lot of concrete good to set up that continuity of care and now it’s a matter of following through to keep that communication and effort going.”

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