If anyone is capable of being in more than one place at a time, it would be Kate Douglass, Reception Hub Coordinator for the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program (NCFHP). With experience in humanitarian work through her time with Doctors Without Borders and as an integral part of the NCFHP COVID-response team, Douglass is no stranger to rallying people around shared goals that put the people served first.
“Did you know the Christmas tree chosen for the White House this year is from a farm in North Carolina,” asked Douglass. “Think about all the work that goes into getting that tree to the White House, and your tree into your home. Take a moment to appreciate the hard work that has happened over the past few years.”
Douglass is referring to the more than 70,000 farmworkers who come to North Carolina every year to harvest our food and Christmas trees. She is referring to a massive movement of people willing to come up from Mexico and make their way from Eastern North Carolina to the mountains, people who leave behind their homes and families for several months of the year, who face significant risk of COVID due to cramped living quarters, shared transportation, and a work environment that does not allow for social distancing. She’s also referring to the people who mobilized across the state to protect farmworkers by making sure they had access to COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
One component of the State’s vaccination strategy was to establish a centralized hub to vaccinate arriving farmworkers with H-2A visas. As the pandemic went on, seasons ended, and farmworkers began returning to Mexico, the reception hub became a departure hub where workers could get their second vaccine dose or booster before making the long journey back home. Maintaining ongoing vaccination services such as this required the help of healthcare providers, volunteers and agencies across the state.
RCL Labs, a State-contracted vaccination provider, is one of those partners, and Donna Jones, lovingly referred to as Ms. Donna, came out of retirement at the beginning of the pandemic to help where she could be of service. “I just want to do my part,” she said. “My heart goes out to [the farmworkers]. They want to work. They cut our trees at Christmas time. They pick the vegetables. They’re willing to come here and do it for little. I try to make them feel welcome when they get here. They’re trusting that what we’re doing will help them. So, I try to make them feel comfortable. I’m even trying to learn a little Spanish!”
Arriving staffers and volunteers greet Ms. Donna as they arrive, some stopping to give her a hug and one commenting on how blessed she is to work with her. Ms. Donna explains that they’ve been through a lot together. She shares that working with RCL has given her an opportunity to learn about other cultures and the diversity of people in rural North Carolina, including the farmworkers. She looks around at the buses beginning to arrive with workers. “I never even knew this existed.”
Nelson Salek has been a community health worker (CHW) with Southeastern Healthcare of North Carolina, working alongside his wife Sadith Salek, since the early days of the reception hub in April 2021. NC DHHS contracted with Spanglish Unlimited to provide quality interpretation services. To supplement these efforts, volunteers and CHWs, such as the Saleks, came to help however they could. “Most of us have known each other since the beginning and now here we are at the last event,” he said. “It’s nice the farmworkers can return to their country safe and fully vaccinated.”
Salek shared that as a CHW, he not only interprets, but also welcomes workers, thanks them for their hard work and sacrifice, and offers support as he can. “The farmworkers are willing to talk about their experiences with us, their families, the good things, the bad things…they are eager to talk with us. I love it. I try to give them some advice or encouragement or find a way to help them feel better.”
Douglass reflects on the past year and recognizes that it can be hard in an emergency to slow down and take time to get to know the population one is serving. “People took the time to speak with folks passing through about their families, their concerns, what their work is like. The time taken to understand the population and then adapt is what made it such a pleasure to work with this team and what made the services so meaningful.”
While some came to the reception hub without prior knowledge of farmworkers, others came with years of experience working with farmworker communities. One such person was Juan Allen, patient navigator with Access East, a nonprofit dedicated to coordinating access to quality care for Eastern North Carolina’s most vulnerable.
“Kudos to Kate Douglass,” said Allen, “Every week there were changes. It was really challenging. She put the team together, and she was the captain. She saw a problem and then made sure it was addressed for the next time. Every day was something new, and then by the end it was smooth and easy. Just the other day we were able to handle 400 farmworkers with only 8 people.”
Allen was not only consistently involved in the reception hub, but also was tirelessly out visiting camps, building relationships with growers, providing health education, Affordable Care Act assistance, and connecting farmworkers to needed care.
“I lost seven patients to COVID,” he reflected before sharing the unexpected gift of the pandemic. “COVID has taught us that we can work together. Now we know we can work together.”
Douglass agrees and adds that working together also brings greater awareness. “People will remember how important it is to think about how we care for the people in our community, and how everyone faces different challenges that require different responses. Farmworkers are essential here and globally. We need to think about them when we think about North Carolina’s agricultural community.”