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Migrant program helps workers adjust to American way of life

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Monica Besa
NEW MADRID - The mother attempted to sooth her toddler as the doctor explained exactly how the medication should be given to ease her child's pain.

She listened carefully, but understood none of the necessary information he offered. She only speaks Spanish, the doctor speaks English.

Fortunately, another voice spoke up at the back of the examination room. From a computer, the doctor's words were translated providing the needed link for the mother and child to the medical practitioner.

"Gracias," responded the mother to the doctor and the unknown voice at the computer.

As more seasonal and farm workers make Southeast Missouri their home, similar scenes are being replayed across the Bootheel. Southeast Missouri Health Network has developed the translation links to their medical and dental clinics located in Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid, Stoddard, Pemiscot and Dunklin counties.

One of those behind the translations is Monica Besa, the new director of Southeast Missouri Health Network's Migrant Services Program.

Besa understands the frustrations people can have as they make a new life in a new country. Besa, originally from Chile, South America, comes to Southeast Missouri after raising her own family in California then living in Florida. Since November she has worked from the Network's Kennett office.

The Network's migrant program isn't new to the area.

In 1990, SEMO Health Network developed an outreach program to target rural, agricultural families. The three month-medical clinic has expanded over the years with services now offered in the Kennett office to more than 2,000 seasonal and farm worker families annually. The numbers are growing as more migrants take jobs in communities throughout the Bootheel.

Today, the Migrant Program includes home visits, screenings, health fairs, fiestas and community events as ways to link health care and other related services to those in the rural communities. Migrant office workers, who are all bilingual, provide information on housing, government assistance, immigration requirements and schools. Also they are available to provide translations not only to the migrants but employers, law enforcement officials and others who don't speak Spanish.

While most youngsters quickly pick up their new country's language at school, Besa said adults often find the language a barrier. Already she has instituted an adult class at a Kennett church to teach English as a second language.

The purchase last month by the Network of a 3,000 square-foot building at 607 First St. in Kennett will provide a permanent home for Besa and her staff to expand their services. Beginning soon at the new location will be a resource for emergency clothing and food.

"I'm a single mom. I understand all people need help sometime," said Besa, during an interview from the SEMO Health Network's headquarters in New Madrid. "And these programs are not only for migrants. There will be no divisions, I don't like divisions. The office is for all people who need help."

Daniel Brachman, executive director of SEMO Health Network, points out there are many tasks that the Migrant Program fills, both for the newcomers and those whose roots are already deep in Southeast Missouri.

"We strive to go beyond just medical care to meet all the needs. That is our mission. We are funded to be the safety net provider in the Bootheel," he said.

Weaving that safety net includes all of the six counties served by the Southeast Missouri Health Network, Brachman emphasized. Particularly pleased with the telecommunications system, linking their clinics in Bernie, Kennett, Lilbourn, New Madrid, Portageville and Sikeston, he noted it is already receiving use not just for translation needs but providing medical experts to assist doctors in their treatment of patients.

"The patient stays local but is treated by consultant - a cardiologist, a dermatologist - hundreds of miles away. All this is possible through technology. It is really nice," said Brachman.

Recently Southeast Missouri Health Network was contacted by a clinic in the Ozarks to serve as translator to assist in the medical operation there. "There is no end to the kind of things we can do," marveled Brachman about the expanding technology.

But the Network will continue to place emphasis providing caring, affordable and quality health care, Brachman said. He pointed to the upcoming health fair March 15 at the Sikeston Elks Lodge where the Southeast Missouri Health Network staff will offer an opportunity for residents to learn about various services and programs available locally.

And their migrant services are migrating as well. "Longer term we will be providing a satellite office of the Migrant Program to our Sikeston medical clinic," said Brachman.

"There is a great need in the northern Bootheel for migrant and seasonal farmworker services."