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Migrant Farmworkers Find Healthcare in Western Missouri

Bram Sable-Smith

Many Mexican migrant farmworkers are heading home at the end of apple picking season this October. Sixty-one year-old Maria Zavala is one of them.

For the past 18 years she’s made the 20-hour drive from her home in Waco, Texas to western Missouri to work in the apple orchards.  She's struggled with high blood pressure that entire time, and like most migrant farmworkers who don't speak English, she often wasn't aware of the health care options available to her.

But here in Lexington, Missouri every Monday evening during apple picking season—from August to late October--the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund (MFAF) holds a health clinic in the parking lot of a Head Start building.

It almost looks like a garage sale: there are tables with blankets, clothes and children’s books. The Mexican consulate is here. And there is another a table where migrant farmworkers like Zavala can have their blood pressure and blood sugar checked by nurses from a local health center. MFAF staff have even filled prescriptions for some of the Monday night regulars, including Zavala.

Suzanne Gladney started MFAF more than 30 years ago, and organizes these clinics every year.

"When [the migrants] first start arriving we have a look out list of people that we know from last year who might be low on medicine, especially the migrants who travel," Gladney said.

The care migrant patients get here in Lexington may be the only care they receive the whole year, even for those who are legal residents of the United States. That's important for Maria Zavala. 

She can get her blood pressure checked, a mammogram, a Pap test and a four-month supply of medicine with enough refills on the prescription to last until the next apple season.

"That’s why we come back, "she said, "and when I come here I know that I’m going to have medicine for my blood pressure."  

Providing these services means a lot of work for the staff of the assistance fund. They translate, set up appointments, transport patients and handle the tricky paperwork—like Medicaid registration forms. Often, that means 12 hour days during the apple season.

But for Gladney and her team, helping migrants out isn’t just a nice thing to do.

"To me this isn’t charity, it’s justice," she said.

"These folks have a right to the same healthcare as everybody else," Gladney said. "It’s just so much harder for them to access it given their lifestyle and where they are in these extremely remote areas that make healthcare difficult for everybody who lives there."  

And MFAF's efforts to assist these migrants have benefited the Lexington community at large.  Gladney helped establish  two federally qualified health centers within 30 miles of here –which provide services to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

"It’s good to feel that the migrant community had a big part in getting two clinics established for everybody," Gladney said.

Maria Zavala is heading home in a few weeks. And thanks to the assistance fund, she has medications for four months and a refill prescription that will last until she's back in Missouri next August.

Daniela Vidal is studying radio reporting at the University of Missouri. She worked at a freedom of the press organization this summer in Bogota, Colombia.
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