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Connecting the Hispanic community with care

Maria Sanchez was running a simple errand to renew her passport in 2017 when a health worker offered to check her blood pressure.

Until then, Maria, a Mexican immigrant, didn’t know the Consulate General of Mexico in Raleigh offers health services for immigrants, but she definitely appreciated that the consulate cared about her health. That day, she asked if she could volunteer.

Her question led Maria to a new professional path and sparked her passion for helping improve the health of immigrants from all countries – especially her home country of Mexico. This National Hispanic Heritage month, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) is celebrating the contributions of Maria and all those who work at El Centro Hispano (El Centro) for the health and well-being of community members.

Building bridges for a healthier community

Maria’s first foray into volunteering at the consulate was for El Centro, the organization that manages the consulate’s health window. El Centro offers a range of services to the Hispanic communities of Durham, Wake, Orange and nearby counties, including programs aimed at improving the health and well-being of community members. When Maria started volunteering, El Centro was holding a health fair and she jumped right in. Speaking in Spanish, she walked up to attendees, encouraging them to look out for their health.

“I have a whole history of volunteering for [my] kids’ schools, for the soccer team and all of that. I thought, maybe I need to start connecting with my community,” Maria said. “What do we have if we don’t have health? Basically nothing. If we don’t take care of ourselves then how are we going to take care of others?”

Maria Sanchez (red sweatshirt), coordinator of the health window and mobile health unit at El Centro Hispano, encourages members of the Hispanic community to get health screenings and vaccines. (Photo courtesy: El Centro Hispano)

Maria now serves as a bridge between immigrants and health services – representing one of many community partners Blue Cross NC supports through its Strengthen NC program to make health care more accessible and easier to navigate.

In 2019, Maria joined the staff at El Centro as an employee to help with a research study they were conducting with Duke University. Today, Maria is the coordinator of health promotion at the Consulate General of Mexico and operates El Centro’s mobile health unit to help immigrants navigate the US system.

Late last year, the Blue Cross NC Healthy Blue Medicaid plan provided $125,000 of funding to help fund El Centro’s Health Mobile Unit and Community Health Worker team, providing preventive health screenings, health education and connection to health resources for Hispanic community members. Maria has been key to promoting the unit’s services in her community. The unit gave at least one health screening to 2,561 people in the 2022 through 2023 fiscal year. “We have these free services,” Maria tells people at the mobile unit. “I say, ‘Do you want to take your glucose, check for diabetes, get your blood pressure checked? It’s free. Just come and do it while you’re waiting.’”

Earlier this year, Blue Cross NC strengthened its partnership with Maria and the El Centro team, launching a new program to distribute meals to people facing food insecurity. From January to June, El Centro distributed 4,080 meals to families across the state – offering choices such as chicken tinga, pork carnitas and Southwestern chicken wraps. In total, Blue Cross NC prepared nearly 23,000 meals for community partners like El Centro to distribute.

From Mexico to Raleigh

Maria’s own experience as an immigrant inspires her approach to working with new immigrants through El Centro. Though she speaks fluent English now, Maria did not speak the language when she started visiting the US in 2003. As a young and adventurous traveler in her twenties, she fell in love with her future husband during her travels and started practicing English with him. She left her resort manager job in Mexico and enrolled in Wake Technical Community College to learn the language.

They started a family and moved to Knightdale in 2009. Maria volunteered at her daughters’ school, as a team parent for the soccer and swim teams. But volunteering for El Centro made her realize that transitioning to American life isn’t so easy for other immigrants – especially when it comes to their health.

“It didn’t cross my mind before that in certain ways I was privileged because I have health insurance, I am able to speak the language,” Maria said. “To me, making an appointment for my doctor or my kids’ pediatrician was easy … but it was not the same for other immigrants.”

Helping thousands of families

Food insecurity is a challenge for people immigrating to the United States. Recognizing the impact of food insecurity on the health of community members, Blue Cross NC leaders decided to use on-site cafeteria resources to prepare free healthy meals for community organizations such as El Centro. With the shift to hybrid working, the employee cafeteria at its campus in Durham had extra capacity that they wanted to share.

Shortly after Blue Cross NC started distributing free meals, Maria witnessed firsthand the benefits of the new program. When El Centro took the prepared meals on visits to a flea market in Smithfield that the health unit visits regularly, several farm laborers who stopped by to pick up meals stayed for free health screenings. Many of them didn’t have a regular doctor and spent most of their time working.

“Every month we have maybe five or six people who have glucose levels over 350 or 400 and they don’t even know about it,” said Maria – alarming considering that healthy glucose levels should be between 70 and 100 mg/dL. She estimates that 85 to 90% of the people she meets at events are uninsured.

Community members attend an El Centro Hispano mobile health unit event. (Photo courtesy: El Centro Hispano)

At that event, El Centro’s staff directed anyone found to have a concerning blood-glucose level to the UNC Health Johnston County Mobile Outreach Unit parked next to them at the market. UNC offered an immediate telehealth appointment and connected patients with ongoing primary care, with help from translators from El Centro if needed.

By connecting community members with care, El Centro is helping people identify health risks before they become emergencies and maintain healthy habits.

“Health care costs and language are barriers to accessing health care, but El Centro provides resources for the growing Hispanic community in North Carolina,” said Cheryl Parquet, director of Community Diversity and Engagement at Blue Cross NC. “El Centro’s approach connects an underserved population in the Triangle with tools to improve their overall well-being and live healthier lives.”

Maria sometimes wonders if she could have been a nurse or paramedic – but she’s happy she found a role where she can make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. She says both of her teenage daughters inspire her to continue her nonprofit work.

“[My oldest daughter] tells me every now and then she’s so proud of me … ‘I think it’s great what you do because you care about all of us and you try to help people,’” Maria said. “When other people say it, I don’t believe it but when she says it, I feel special.”

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