Help on Wheels St. Joseph of the Pines Semi Travels County
BY SARAH BROWN
A haven on wheels where people can heal.
That is the St. Joseph of the Pines semi
in a nutshell.
As a mobile outlet for the Moore Free Care Clinic, this 18-wheeled truck, equipped with masses of medical supplies and two fully furnished examination rooms, travels to Carthage and Robbins a total of four days each month to offer health services to any free clinic patient who may not have the means to travel the 20-plus miles from rural Moore County to Southern Pines for a doctor's visit.
This particular January day exposes the real face of winter, with temperatures not breaking the mid-20s in Carthage even though it is past 9 a.m.
Susie Buchanan, director of community relations at St. Joseph of the Pines, pulls her thick coat closer around her as a gust of wind stings her face.
"When it gets warmer, we're going to use this whole park space (behind where the semi is parked)," she says.
Buchanan plans for medical seminars and workshops to be held on the semi's fold-out stage this spring and summer, in addition to exercise classes and concerts. She also hopes to start offering dental services on the semi soon.
Right now, around 15 patients are seen each day that the mobile clinic comes to town. The only requirement to receive help is to be a free clinic patient.
Before patients start arriving, Buchanan talks about how the idea for the semi came about.
"When I started working at St. Joseph's, the CEO told me, 'We need to get back to helping those least able to help themselves.' I'd been coming to Pinehurst for years to play golf with friends, and I never knew there was a problem (with people in need)," she says.
According to a New York Times graphic published last September, Moore County has seen the largest increase in poverty over the past three years of any county in North Carolina. It was those statistics that helped St. Joseph obtain the grant to build the truck.
Buchanan is greeted by Lynne Drinkwater. As the community relations coordinator at St. Joseph, Drinkwater is Buchanan's right-hand man.
Drinkwater organizes the volunteers and oversees the cleaning and maintenance of the semi. She also gives public speaking events where she talks about what the semi does and emphasizes its hefty operational costs.
"For the two days we go to Carthage every month, it costs $2,000," she says. "So I try to bring in as many resources as possible to help offset that cost."
Drinkwater hopes to see the mobile clinic involved in other communities in the near future.
"Possibly we could branch out and build another truck that could go to a neighboring county," she says.
Drinkwater points to a recent hefty gift from Belk and support from First Bank in Robbins to stress that there are businesses in the area interested in helping with funding.
"I foresee a time when we can approach local businesses to sponsor a day when we go out (with the semi)," she says.
Close to 10 a.m., patients start arriving. They are checked out and evaluated by Deborah Bateman FNP, who is the clinical director at the free clinic. Nurse Crystal Roberts assists her.
"Our main service (on the semi) is primary care," Bateman says. "For people who have untreated injuries or a more serious disease or condition, we refer them to Pinehurst Surgical or Pinehurst Medical, who donate their services."
Bateman notes that many of her patients haven't seen a physician in years.
"The most gratifying thing for me is identifying these people living in cardboard boxes or out of their cars and getting them help," she says. "It becomes more than just a 20-minute appointment. We coordinate other services for them and make sure they have all the support they need."
As Bateman says, the semi isn't just a place for doctor's visits. Inside there is also a volunteer stationed at a computer ready to help patients get set up with the North Carolina Benefit Bank, which is a website that people can use to apply for aid from Social Services.
A Social Services office is conveniently located next door to the semi's parking spot, making it possible for people to complete applications and immediately receive food stamps or help paying for Medicare.
Latoya Murchison is the benefit bank counselor on-site today. She helps people, both free clinic patients and walk-ins, with filling out applications for aid.
Murchison's situation is unique, because she has been out of work since last August and is actually a patient of the free clinic.
"I can relate to these people, because I'm one of them," she says.
Outside the semi there is another intriguing service available to clinic patients.
Rose Highland-Sharpe, a local minister who also works as a recruiter for basic skills at Sandhills Community College, has braved the biting cold today to set up a station offering help to anyone interested in completing their GED.
There is a job fair planned for this April at the semi that will go along nicely with Highland-Sharpe's efforts.
Back inside the warmth of the semi, Murchison and Drinkwater are joined in a side room by Marsae Stone and Kay Bozarth, who work with two of St. Joseph's partner organizations, the Northern Moore Family Resource Center in Robbins and the Moore Coalition for Human Care, respectively.
It becomes clear quickly how important the collaboration between the different organizations is. The four of them launch into a discussion of their work and how their combined forces can better serve the community. The exchange lasts nearly an hour.
Stone works with the Resource Center as an IDA (Individual Development Account) counselor. She says she deals mainly with clients looking to purchase a house, teaching people about saving money, credit repair, and how the loan process works.
Most of the Coalition's work involves initially assessing a person's need, providing them with emergency aid, and then referring that person to an agency who can better assist with his or her individual situation.
"We are a crisis agency," says Bozarth. "Many people come to us saying, 'I don't know what to do, I don't know how to feed my children, I'm completely lost.' We try to tide them over and point them in the right direction."
The four then begin trading stories of people they've seen helped.
"Just this morning, a woman came to the benefit bank (at the resource center) who had just lost her job. We filled her application out and sent her here," shares Stone.
"I just stopped a car driving by outside," Drinkwater adds. "I asked them, 'Do you need blankets? Coats? Hats?' They responded with a resounding yes and ended up leaving with two big bags (of clothes)."
After visiting with Dr. Bateman, patients are directed by Drinkwater to the bags of winter coats, hats, gloves and blankets sitting in piles inside the semi. They are free to take as many items as they need.
A few people seem timid and almost fearful about taking the donated clothing. One woman takes only a hat.
"That's all you need? Are you sure?" Drinkwater asks her.
The last patients come in a little after 1 p.m. Then the semi has to be packed up and driven back to St. Joseph's headquarters in Southern Pines. The work doesn't end until around 4 in the afternoon.
It's a long day, but any effort to help those in need is well worth it.
"We're all God's children, and we all have the right to be equal," Bozarth says.
The words scrawled in large font on the outside of the semi ring loud and clear: "Together, we can do more."
Sarah Brown served as a newsroom intern during the holidays. She plans to return to The Pilot this summer.
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