Cesaria Martinez saw a little of herself in the face of a young girl she met on a South Georgia farm.
Last summer 17-year-old Martinez was a member of Teen Corp, a group of 16 youth who volunteered within Emory University’s South Georgia Farm worker Health Project.
As she shadowed her PA mentor, Martinez and the 5th grader spoke in Spanish of the girl’s father, who was working in fields near Bainbridge, Ga., a town about 240 miles south of Atlanta.
Martinez’s own dad had picked tomatoes in Mexico decades earlier, then moved his family to Atlanta when she was 5.
The girl told her how her father stressed the importance of education, and said she hoped to do well in school and work in medicine.
And like Martinez, the girl was shy. Too shy and embarrassed to speak freely around Brendan Fels, a PA student and Martinez’s mentor. “I wholeheartedly believe that the reason I got on a deeper level with farm workers was that Cesaria was sitting there with me,” he said.
So when Fels stepped away, the little girl opened up, telling Martinez about the belts she would sell in Mexico, her dream to become a doctor, and the pain she was having. She was diagnosed with and treated for a urinary tract infection.
“There was something very mature about her, because having to go through things makes you mature much faster,” said Martinez. “Being so young, she had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do.”
A junior at The Paideia School in Atlanta, Martinez knows that to be true. For her, just getting to school is a 90-minute ride by two buses and a train.
Martinez was part of a group of approximately 80 volunteers including 40 PA students, physicians, interpreters and physical therapists offering healthcare and other services to hundreds of farm workers. The Teen Corp volunteers worked for a week in Bainbridge, treating 955 people. Afterward the other volunteers took the mobile clinic to Valdosta for another week. Both towns are about 20 miles north of the Florida border.
Summer 2012 was the 16th anniversary of the farm workers’ health program, but it was the first year school-age children were officially involved.
Teen Corp was conceived by Jodie Guest, PhD, who for five years has taken her 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son on the trip. Assigned in school to write a play about conflict, her son, Gavin, wrote about a sheriff arresting a migrant farm worker because of immigration issues. She wanted other school-age kids to have the experience of giving back, understanding the issues, overcoming stigma.
“That week was probably one of the single most moving and exciting weeks I’ve ever had,” Guest said, “as I watched these kids provide care, connect, expand and be touched. After returning home, the parents and the Teen Corp members have shared that this was a life-changing event for them and that they will see the world through a different lens. That is success.”
Far from the city
Teen Corp members—eight children of Emory faculty and eight chosen from groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta and other local schools—worked alongside PA student mentors to observe, and participate with patients’ permission, in providing health screenings and treatment for the pickers. For many of them, Fels said, the care they receive at the mobile clinic is the only healthcare they’ll receive all year.
Guest and Chris Fritzen, an Emory PA student, worked together to pair Teen Corp members with student mentors.
Fritzen, chuckling at memories of his own misdirected youth in Southern California, said he is impressed by Teen Corp students. Last year was his first time participating in the South Georgia Farm workers Project.
“When I was 16 I certainly wasn’t raising my hand to learn how to work up pneumonia and listen to breath sounds, working in the hot sun for several hours a day,” he said. “I just wouldn’t have done that and that is what these kids did.”
The days were busy. Volunteers had breakfast at about 7 a.m. then headed for their morning location where they would conduct clinics from about 8 a.m. until noon. Teen Corp members would shadow their PA mentors as they saw patients for one shift, and then worked shifts distributing clothes and food. The evening clinic ran from about 6 until 11 p.m. Sometimes the patient load was so large the clinic ran until 2 a.m.
Typical ailments included shoulder and lower back pain, dental problems, sexually transmitted diseases and uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure. Conditions caused by extreme sun exposure, such as sunburn and pterygium, and eye and skin conditions linked to contact with pesticides, were common.
One woman who was about eight months pregnant went to the clinic seeking clearance to work with her husband in the field, determined to pick until she went into labor, Martinez said. Volunteers explained that carrying full buckets of produce could be harmful, so she asked if she could pick “from the top” and not move heavy buckets.
And because she visited on a day when the electrocardiogram truck was on site, she also got a chance to see her baby for the first time.
“We found her baby, a perfect picture of the baby sucking its thumb,” Fels said. “They were unbelievably excited about it.” Her husband and mother heard firsthand that the baby was a boy.
Each day the young volunteers would huddle to discuss what they had done and seen in clinic and the people they encountered. “Learning huddles were opportunities to download,” Fritzen said.
In these learning huddles, the PA students did presentations on body systems, the Teen Corp members presented interesting cases, and Dr. Guest led the group through discussions about what they were seeing and how they were reacting. The group also toured a tomato farm and corn farm to watch the pickers and learn about their work and pay.
For the PA students, providing care in rural Georgia offered a taste of what practicing might look like.
“For the first time it allowed me to see a patient from beginning to end,” performing physicals, drawing up a treatment plan, answering questions, prescribing, and educating, said Fels. “I think it is very empowering for a student to go through this process.”
And the benefits went beyond the clinic. Fels says he is now committed to developing a career working more closely with patients.
“When you see (poverty) in your own country less than four hours from where you’re living … it’s mind blowing,” Fels said. It served as a reminder of what he was learning to do. “The healthcare I provide should be the same for everybody, regardless of where you come from, what you do and what your expectations (of care) are.”
Thanksgiving in June
Gratitude was a recurring theme. Volunteers said they were thankful for the intensive clinical experience, and for the farm workers’ hard labor and low pay they earned filling grocery store shelves, though they were often unable to feed their own families.
And the patients, too, were grateful.
Teen Corp member Laura Ramirez gave shoes to 3- and 4-year-olds who had never owned any and gave sunglasses to farm workers who had never heard of them. And parents with health problems were most concerned about keeping their young children healthy, getting dental screenings and shots before getting themselves checked.
“They work hard and live that lifestyle gratefully and make sure their kids are in school,” she said.
That underscored Ramirez’s gratitude to her parents.
They arrived in Atlanta from Acapulco in 1991, taking jobs as dishwashers to support their four children. Today they each work as chefs at local restaurants. And Ramirez, now 19, finished her first year at Agnes Scott College with hopes of transferring to Georgia State University later this year.
The family hit a rough patch in 2008 when her father suffered kidney failure and was in the hospital for about a month. Ramirez and her older brother took jobs to help their mother hold the family and the finances together.
He’s managing his condition with medication. Doctors still don’t fully understand his illness, so Ramirez wants to become a nephrologist to conduct research on childhood kidney disease “so it can be detected earlier,” she said.
Ramirez and other volunteers even picked tomatoes. They weren’t even close to filling their buckets and were exhausted, she said. Farm workers told her they earn 12 cents for each 5-gallon bucket of tomatoes.
She doesn’t look at salad the same way.
“You get to see the reality of it,” she said. “We would never think that cherry tomatoes in our salad would take so long to pick.”
Nichele Hoskins, a freelance writer based in Birmingham, grew up on the South Georgia coast.
See also: Helping Hands, Healing Hearts