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Beth McKee-Huger: These women move mountains
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Beth McKee-Huger: These women move mountains

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If you have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, the Bible says, you can move mountains. Women at Mustard Seed Community Health move mountains, “empowering our community with good health.”

The mountain is the scarcity of medical and mental health care for people without insurance, without enough income for housing, healthy food and reliable transportation, with limited English.

The movers are the team addressing the “social determinants of health.” Dr. Beth Mulberry weaves concern about physical, emotional and economic stress into her medical care for babies through elders. Ileana Tol, a licensed clinical social worker, counsels in Spanish and English. The two gently counter the misinformation about vaccines.

Cherice Hazley and Nikki Bello answer dozens of calls a day and expertly triage for scheduling appointments. Joanne Foster and Gloria McMasters, community health workers, check on their neighbors and distribute donated food, masks, vaccination information and hope, with almost 3,000 contacts in the past two years. Estefania Alfaro Ruiz accounts for every penny coming in and Christy Collum tirelessly reaches out to donors.

The opportunity to see mountains moving is Oct. 21 at Mustard Seed’s annual luncheon — with a virtual Plan B, if necessary, to limit gatherings. Kathy Colville, president of North Carolina Institute of Medicine and champion of healthy communities, will be the keynote speaker. She has moved mountains for our most vulnerable neighbors in Greensboro and regionally through improved access to health care, mental health care, affordable housing and healthy food. She is now transforming community health through data and policy changes, now on a statewide level.

What’s her message? That movers of mountains don’t walk alone. “Healthy communities require the grace and mercy of collaboration and shared leadership; people of good faith coming to the table together to find common ground and drive change,” Colville says. “That’s true whether we’re talking about a neighborhood, a city or a state.”

Mustard Seed is growing and branching out. This month Ileana Tol graduate interns opened the Sprout mental health center next door to the clinic to provide larger private counseling spaces and a play therapy room for children. COVID has had a disproportionate impact on people already struggling with the ongoing stress of poverty, isolation, substance misuse, family tensions and chronic illness. Mental health service capacity is strained and culturally competent counseling for people without insurance is rarely available. At the Sprout, people can feel comfortable addressing their concerns in Spanish or English and the next generation can learn community mental health.

Health Outreach Team (HOT) meetings each week are enthusiastic, with tales of the lives touched. Joanne Foster and Gloria McMasters quickly establish trust and energetically find the resources for neighbors to feed their children, find different housing, get rides to vaccine appointments and sort pill boxes. They safely escort a wandering senior to her family, deliver gallons of milk to homeless families sheltering in a motel and advocate for safer bike lanes after a neighbor was tragically killed while riding her bike. The team did a multi-disciplinary evaluation at the front door of a person with mental illness so severe he will not go into an office.

This integrated team approach to community health keeps people well. In 2020, 82% of the patients with hypertension brought their blood pressure under control and 76% of diabetic patients had acceptable A1c measures, preventing hospital emergency visits and disabling strokes and diabetic coma. In 2021, so far, the team has given more than 1,550 COVID vaccinations.

Mustard Seed is an independent nonprofit, providing this high-quality health care to our community through the generous contributions of individual and corporate donors. Movers of Mountains offers an opportunity to become a sustaining supporter with monthly donations at any amount. You can join Mustard Seed’s women in moving the mountain of illness and poverty.

Beth McKee-Huger is an Episcopal deacon, vegetable farmer, housing advocate and News & Record columnist.

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