The sun blazed hot on the morning of June 22, scorching the exposed skin of those who had gathered in Aurora’s City Park. Shame, really, considering the heat probably led to a lower turnout of people who came to grab some free food and get a health screening at the mobile unit parked just off East 16th Avenue.
But Deontray Burton was there. Two days before, the Aurora resident had a seizure and fainted. When he went to the doctor shortly afterward, his blood sugar was low, his weight had dropped, and his waistline had shrunk to an impossible circumference. As he said, “it’s been a minute” since he’d seen a physician. Although he’d been covered through Medicaid, the whole process had been such a hassle, and getting a free check-up at this pop-up event was so much easier.
Ironically, Burton is neither an immigrant nor a refugee—the type of person Aurora had set out to help through Health Powers Life, an awareness campaign that has provided information about preventative health care to more than 4,000 people and health screenings to about 1,300 at a variety of events since it launched in 2017. (This Saturday, health workers will gather at St. Matthew Lutheran Church for the last event of the year.)
The program is part of Aurora’s revolutionary plan designed to ensure that the city caters to its many foreign residents, who make up 19.7 percent of its population. “Some of these people don’t have access to medical insurance. In other cases, they don’t have legal status,” says Ricardo Gambetta-Alvarado, manager of Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs (OIIA). “It’s usually a combination of different factors, and one of the most important is that they’re not familiar with the system. Our role is try to educate them on how to navigate the system.”
OIAA has done this by partnering with other forward-thinking organizations in the area, including the Tri-County Health Department, the Mexican consulate, and CREA Results, a nonprofit that works to increase health equity among the Latino community. Together, these groups set up a website directing residents to resources in the area—whether for primary care, exercise, nutrition, or recovery—and announced their campaign on Spanish radio shows. CREA contributed a mobile health unit, which was an enormous asset in creating a private space at various events where people could get their blood pressure, BMI, and other measures tested. The nonprofit also commissioned multilingual community health workers who could explain the information in languages immigrants and refugees could understand. “It’s about understanding cultural considerations,” says Fernando Pineda-Reyes, CEO of CREA. “But it’s also about understanding that [the health workers] can take the liberty to talk to you straight because they know it’s OK to talk to you in plain Spanish and be on the edgy side, like ‘Get off your butt and go for a walk.’ The whimsicality of the message is powerful, but also respectful.”
While Health Powers Life was set up to serve the immigrant and refugee community, it soon became apparent that other area residents needed these services, as well. Take Tommasina McGhee, a dental assistant with SpringRock Dental, which was offering dental screenings on that sweltering June day. McGhee has health insurance and goes to the doctor regularly, but her coworkers convinced her to get the standard tests done anyway. After all, they were free, right? Turns out her blood pressure was high, a spike she attributed to a stressful day, but just seeing those numbers made her aware that her surroundings did actually influence her health. “I need to lose weight,” she admitted. “I’m almost there, but that’s not good enough.”
Pineda-Reyes acknowledged that OIAA and the late Aurora mayor Steve Hogan, who was instrumental in creating the immigration plan, took on the responsibility of serving constituencies outside the immigrant and refugee community with this initiative at free, open events. “It wasn’t a coin flip,” Pineda-Reyes says. “I think it was more like we were prepared to reach out to multiple ethnicities and communities.”
Inclusivity seems like the right approach, especially as I look around the park and count the number of individuals perched on a brick wall in the shadow of a tree, hoping to avoid the sun. McGhee and I have been chatting, and she speaks up after following my gaze. “I was hoping to see my dad,” she says wistfully. “He’s homeless. He hangs out here a lot.”
He’s nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the heat was too much for him. Or maybe he just didn’t know where to go to get the help he needed.