Light a Fire 2017: Keeping Us Healthy

How an Oregon Clinic Provides Vital Health Care for Seasonal and Migrant Workers

After a child’s avoidable death, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center came together in her name.

By Katie Vaughan October 16, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Working with a patient at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center

In 1975, 6-year-old Virginia Garcia was traveling to Oregon from Mission, Texas, with her parents, both seasonal farmworkers, when she cut her foot. Due in part to language, economic, and cultural barriers, she was denied adequate care. (The medication she was given required refrigeration, to which the family did not have access.) On June 17, she died. Within months, a collection of ex-migrant families and religious organizations rallied together to open a clinic to serve people like Virginia and her family.

“We want to make sure no one ever dies like Virginia died,” says Serena Cruz, executive director of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.

Since that awful but galvanizing start more than 40 years ago, the staff at Virginia Garcia has provided vital medical services to the newest, and most underserved, Oregonians, including seasonal and migrant workers. What began as a volunteer clinic in a three-car garage has since grown to encompass 17 clinics offering comprehensive health care to almost 45,000 patients in the metro area. Services range from family medicine and prenatal care to mental health treatment and nutrition classes. Patients come from a wide range of backgrounds, and many face financial, cultural, and linguistic barriers to accessing health care.

“Lack of health care gets in the way of your ability to be successful and thrive in this community,” Cruz says. Without the clinics, many Virginia Garcia patients would have few places to turn. The organization also offers vulnerable populations something less tangible and just as crucial: trust and respect. Patients speak 62 languages, with Spanish, Arabic, and Somali among the most common.

“The system hasn’t always worked for them,” says Cruz. “Every member of the team is thinking about the relationship they’re building with the patient, and the patient senses that.”

VGMHC by the Numbers

  • Patients served in 2016: 44,652
  • 98% of patients are low-income, and 48% live in poverty.
  • 29% are uninsured.
  • 16% are migrant or seasonal farmworkers.
  • 42% are under the age of 18.
  • The staff reflects the patients: 56% of patients are Hispanic, along with 64% of staff.
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