Migrant worker community pitches in on transportation

MIDDLEBURY — The Open Door Clinic (ODC) was unsuccessful in its recent application for grant money to improve transportation services for migrant farm workers needing to get to medical appointments, but the Middlebury nonprofit was pleased to announce last week that 28 drivers have now stepped up to provide rides to those in need.
And ODC officials were thrilled to report that 25 of the 28 drivers hail from either Mexico or Guatemala, meaning that they are fluent in Spanish and have first-hand knowledge of the challenges that migrant workers face in accessing services outside of the Addison County farms on which they work.
“It’s almost like the (migrant worker) community has risen to meet the internal needs of their community,” said ODC Executive Director Heidi Sulis.
These new drivers are able to legally take the wheel thanks to Vermont’s recent creation of the “Driver’s Privilege Card.”
“It’s become a way for them to give back,” Christiane Kokubo, the ODC’s communications specialist, said of the new crop of drivers.
It was this past July 31 that the ODC stopped coordinating rides for migrant workers to get to their medical appointments, due to the mounting administrative demands the service was placing on the organization’s limited staff. The clinic is based at Porter Medical Center and delivers free health care services to folks in the Addison County area who are uninsured or under-insured. The ODC also links qualifying people with affordable health care through Vermont Health Connect and other programs.
The ODC last year provided health care services for 335 migrant workers. Clinic officials were concerned that some of these patients might not be able to access their appointments — and meetings with medical specialists in Rutland and Chittenden counties — after the Open Door Clinic stopped coordinating rides. Those rides were provided by more than two-dozen volunteer drivers, many of whom also had to be lined up with an interpreter to facilitate communication with their passenger-patients. The clinic and an organization called Amistad has helped locate interpreters. Amistad — a Spanish word meaning “friendship” — is a grassroots organization that helps migrant workers overcome transportation difficulties.
“We would like to thank deeply all our Amistad drivers, who in 2014 alone drove more than 23,000 miles to bring migrant farmworkers to their health care appointments,” Kokubo said. “They really made the difference in making Vermont a healthier place for all.”
The new crop of drivers will negotiate their transportation fees with prospective riders, based on mileage and time commitment. Sulis and Kokubo are advising drivers to be reasonable in what they charge, reinforcing the notion that the rides are a way for the drivers to help their peers.
Open Door Clinic and Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) still want to establish a coordinated ride program for migrant workers. The organizations jointly applied for a $150,000 grant through the JM Kaplan Fund, money that would be used in part to pay for a part-time bilingual dispatcher and subsidize medical rides for migrant workers. JM Kaplan Fund administrators gave good marks to the ODC/ACTR grant application, but declined to fund the request because it was unclear how the transportation plan could be replicated on a broader scale throughout the state, according to Sulis.
Clinic officials have not ruled out re-applying for a transportation grant. For now, they will monitor the success of the new transportation network. The early returns are good.
“Our migrant patients continue to come as often as before,” Kokubo said. “We have had maybe one or two appointments cancelled due to the lack of transportation.”
Meanwhile, the ODC is looking to expand other services for those in need. Specifically, the organization is forging a partnership with a handful of Middlebury-area dentists to provide free dental care to the uninsured and under-insured. The dental program would be run under the direction of Dr. Adam Fasoli, DMD, according to Kokubo.
“We want to replicate the ODC model in the dental world,” Sulis said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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