Georgia State students and graduates provide crucial health care to migrant farmers and their families in South Georgia through the Farm Worker Family Health Program.
Photos and video by Bill Roa
MOULTRIE, Ga.— It’s a hot, muggy evening in South Georgia when a convoy of pickup trucks, vans and cars turns down a rutted dirt road lined with acres of lush squash and cucumber plants.
The travelers aren’t local farmers. They’re recent dental hygiene graduates and doctor of physical therapy students from Georgia State, nursing students and nurse practitioner students from Emory University and pharmacy students from the University of Georgia.
They’re continuing a 25-year-old mission of serving Georgia by providing preventative health care to hundreds of migrant farm workers and their families.
Called the Farm Worker Family Health Program, the service-learning experience is organized through the Ellenton Farmworker Clinic, which offers health care services for migrant farm workers and their families in southwest Georgia. It’s one way the three institutions help local communities while providing a unique learning experience for students.
“A lot of these farm workers work 14 hours a day, picking produce and packaging the produce,” said Dr. Jodan Garcia, associate professor of physical therapy at Georgia State and a long-time volunteer for the migrant health program.
Migrant workers and farmers need to get produce out of the fields when it’s ready, and there’s no time to stop. A missed day of work for a doctor’s visit can mean no pay.
On the health clinic’s opening night at one large farm, more than 130 migrant farm workers will be seen. They’ll be checked for oral cancer and shown how to brush and floss properly. They’ll be examined for muscle and foot injuries and have their blood pressure and glucose levels taken. Some workers will receive antibiotics for infections or over-the-counter medication for muscle pain. A few will be referred to the Ellenton Clinic to review more serious problems.
After one or two nights at the farm, the health care staff will pack up and move to another farm. Over the 10-day project, between 700 and 1,000 migrant laborers and their families at farms in Colquitt, Tift, Cook and Brooks counties will be seen by some of the 100-plus health care students and clinicians.
The farm owners participate in the federal H-2A visa program, through which migrant workers can work on the farms legally for up to 10 months to plant, harvest and pack produce.
Children of migrant workers receive health care while attending a federal summer program at an elementary school in Colquitt County, said Cherie Rainwater, director of the dental hygiene program at Perimeter College. It’s part of the Migrant Education Program, a federal project that provides a three-week academic program for migrant families.
For Maria Serrano and Abby Brooks, recent Perimeter College dental hygiene graduates, the trip helped them understand the needs of underserved patients.
“I am realizing how much I take for granted my health care,” said Brooks. “When I had a cavity, the dentist caught it early. When I was sick, my parents took me to the doctor.”
That isn’t often the case for the patients they saw in the camp — or those they saw at the elementary school, Serrano said.
At the campsite, Serrano and Brooks, good friends, provided care at the dental tent, with Brooks providing the oral exam and Serrano explaining dental health education in Spanish.
For Garcia, himself an immigrant who has worked as a volunteer faculty member in Moultrie for the past nine years, seeing the students collaborate and help the workers is rewarding.
“It’s fascinating to see them performing those skills here in the field where the language barrier and cultural setting is different than anything they may experience,” Garcia said.
Garcia was recently was recognized for his work with the program, receiving Georgia State’s 2019 Carl V. Patton Award President’s Award in the category of outstanding faculty. He donated the $500 prize for his award to help buy rubber boots for the workers, who often suffer from foot issues working in wet fields with pesticides.
“I know we’re making a difference,” said Pam Cushenan, a Perimeter College dental hygiene faculty member volunteering for the project. “We’re getting a much healthier workforce of the people who are supplying this country with needed fruits and vegetables and keeping these farms thriving. And we are helping the people who are working these farms to support their families.”