By David Karas | Correspondent
For many living in Trenton, access to healthcare is restricted not only by cost prohibitions, but also by language barriers.
Roberto Hernandez, program director of El Centro – a program of Catholic Charities, which is based in Trenton and provides ministry to the city’s Latino community – understands this challenge well.
“We are a bridge to a lot of the services in the community that a lot of people wouldn’t have access to, or would not know how to have access to,” he said. “People sometimes do not take care of their health until it is too late.”
That is the primary motivation behind the social service agency’s annual health fair, a tradition some 15 years in the making. The event, held in late April or early May, brings together nearly 40 different organizations which bring their services directly to the population in a comfortable, safe setting – the basement of Sacred Heart Parish.
“It started very small – the idea behind it was that many of the people weren’t able to get access to affordable healthcare at that point,” said Hernandez.
Today, the health fair has grown significantly, drawing an average of 600 to 800 attendees with a record high of 1,200. Practitioners, including physicians, doctors and other healthcare professionals, provide everything from screenings to toothbrushes. Many of the doctors return year after year, Hernandez said, and provide many services pro-bono.
“It really helps folks who are vulnerable,” he said. Preventative care – including provision of things like deodorant and other care products – is combined with follow-up care plans for those with more significant needs, he added, with El Centro and other organizations even helping patients with transportation and interpreting while meeting with doctors and specialists.
“Because some of the population here doesn’t speak English, getting them to have access to this (care) is very difficult,” he said, noting that some have been deterred from seeking help for medical issues due to language barriers.
He added his appreciation for the dozens of volunteers who come out each year, as well as for Father Dennis Apoldite, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, who provides the free space for the event as well as support and encouragement for folks to attend.
Hernandez said that the trust that the community has in El Centro – which provides a host of services, including GED courses, computer lessons and counseling – adds to the effectiveness of the health fair.
“They trust El Centro and they trust the Church,” he said. “The Church is part of who they are, and they look at El Centro as being part of the Church and the mission of the Church.”
He continued, “They land at our steps, sometimes with just the shirt on their backs, looking for some help.”
Hernandez said that his objective is to provide services, but in a way that allows clients to achieve success on their own.
“I want people at the end of the day to say that they did it,” he said, “putting something in front of them so that they can be successful in navigating that, with our support.”
He said that another focus is on providing for those who suffer from mental disabilities.
And while the health fair is an annual event, the organization offers monthly health screenings, as well as eye exams and assistance obtaining eyeglasses. That is combined with efforts to offer education about nutrition and cooking health foods.
For Hernandez, the work of El Centro – particularly its health fair – is deeply connected with their faith.
“Our bodies are temples of God, and God wants us to take care of ourselves,” said Hernandez. “He wants us to be the best Christian that we can be, and besides feeding ourselves spiritually, we have to feed ourselves with nourishment.”
Besides the basic effects of living a healthy lifestyle, he said, taking care of one’s physical self allows for a deeper connection with God and his work.
“This allows us to go out and bring other people to the table,” he said. “Our faith moves us to do that, and it is so important that we also model for our young people and make sure they have an opportunity to, spiritually and physically, develop at their highest potential.”