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EDINBURG, RGV – A new mobile health clinic purchased by UT-Rio Grande Valley thanks to a grant from United Health Foundation cost $425,000.

Linda S. Nelson, senior director of clinical operations for the UTRGV School of Medicine, says the expenditure will be worth every penny if it saves just one life in the Valley’s colonias.

“This mobile clinic cost $425,000, fitted out with all the dental equipment and the lab equipment. She is worth every bit of it. If I can change the health of one person in the community, it is worth every penny,” said Nelson, who will set the schedule for the mobile clinic.

Linda S. Nelson, RN, MSN
Linda S. Nelson, RN, MSN

“We are going to go to all four counties in the Rio Grande Valley. We are not just doing Hidalgo County and Cameron County. We will be going from Raymondville to Rio Grande City,” Nelson said.

Asked how many colonias the clinic would visit, Nelson said: “As many as will have us.” But there are a lot of colonias, a reporter responded. “If we had two it would be better. If we had three it would be better still. We keep planning for the future,” Nelson replied.

Nelson spoke to the Rio Grande Guardian about the new “UniMovil” when the bus was unveiled to the media outside the UTRGV School of Medicine academic building in Edinburg. A number of dignitaries were present for the unveiling, including state Sen. Eddie Lucio and UTRGV Provost Havidan Rodriguez.

Asked about the joy that was clearly on show at the unveiling, Nelson said: “I cannot tell you how much I share the joy. We have been working on this for really a year and a half. To see it pull into this parking lot is almost overwhelming. We have been going to two colonias, one in Mercedes and one in Brownsville for about a year. But, we have been caravanning piece by piece in cars and then we put it all together when we get there. Sometimes we have enough room, sometimes we don’t.”

Nelson reaffirmed her commitment to see as many colonia residents as possible, pointing out that her team currently visits Indian Hills East, a large colonia north of Mercedes, and Cameron Park, a large colonia north of Brownsville. “We want to see as many community citizens as we can. We see this as a wonderful way to improve healthcare access in the Valley. I can’t tell you how proud the UTRGV School of Medicine is and how thankful we are to the United Health Foundation for making this possible.”

Some of the grant money from United Health Foundation is going towards the training of promotoras, lay health education advisers that work in colonias. Nelson said 12 promotoras took classes at UTRGV to become instructors and seven graduated. She said the goal is to have 15 full-time promotoras working across the Valley. “We have a class where we are teaching promotoras in the community. We want to increase the number of promotoras. We love promotoras. We want to expand their education to include mental health and behavioral health.”

A top goal, Nelson said, is to have a separate module for oral health. “Oral health is monumental in the Valley. There is not enough access to healthcare in the Valley and even less to dental. We are looking for a dentist, if anyone is interested in some part time work. We want to take a dentist on the bus with us.”

Asked what the likely reaction will be from colonia residents when they see the mobile clinic, Nelson said: “I could gauge from yesterday, when we did our maiden voyage to Cameron Park, that they were overjoyed. Us too. We have been talking and talking, saying the bus is coming. We have enabled the bus to serve the deaf better. Our staff is taking sign language classes so we can communicate better with the deaf. We hope to improve their access to care as well. We are very proud of that.”

One of the speakers at the unveiling was Jesse Delgado, a promotora from Indian Hills East. In his remarks Delgado said too many colonia residents are afraid to leave their homes. Asked if she found this, Nelson said: “Being undocumented makes people more fearful. It is a huge barrier to even seeking access, seeking services. We are going to improve that in the Valley. We are going to augment what is there. We are here to work with the community, to augment the community.”

The grant from United Health Foundation lasts for three years. Asked what happens when the grant ends, Nelson said: “We are going to apply for another grant. One of the goals of the grant is to have sustainability. You have to sustain what you have built. The Valley has had a lot of experience of people coming in and running out of money and not having sustainable services. We will reapply to United in two and three quarter years for another round of funding. We are hoping to get another van.”

Nelson concluded the interview by saying colonia residents give far more back to her and her team than they receive. “Every day I get up and I see how much this community wants to give back to the community. It is amazing what this community has instilled in their families.”

United Health Foundation

Donald Langer, CEO United Healthcare Community Plan of Texas, spoke at the unveiling of the mobile health clinic. He said United Health Foundation’s grant total was $2.88 million. “We started the grant last year. It is a three-year program to support various innovative things that can improve healthcare in the community. The mobile clinic is one of the four components of the grant. The other grants work on the promotoras programs, the training, and data collection to support the analytics to figure out how to make the community healthier,” Langer told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Langer, who is based in Houston, Texas, said it was good to hear Delgado speak about becoming a promotora. “It is nice to put a face and a name to a program we have been talking about for years. It is great to see it really does have a direct impact on the community.”

Asked why United Health Foundation, which is based in Minnesota, was investing in the Valley, Langer said: “The local team here identified the opportunity and applied for the grant. The foundation came down and felt it really fitted their mission, which is to be innovative and creative, with something that can be tangible and you can measure to track impacts. That is what the foundation is all about, improving the community. It was a perfect match.”

Langer added: “We appreciate the partnership with UT-Rio Grande Valley and the other leadership that is here today. It is all about being part of the community and working together.

Delgado’s joy

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian after the event, Delgado spoke about his upbringing in Indian Hills East and his unlikely passage to becoming a promotora.

Jesse Delgado
Jesse Delgado

“There are about 300 families living in Indian Hills East, many of them with seven to nine per house. Most of them are undocumented. Now that I am a promotora I look forward to every new day because I feel joy when I help others. I do not want them to go through what I went through,” Delgado said.

Delgado said becoming a promotora has helped him mature as a person.

“My parents crossed from Mexico a month before I was born. I was born in Weslaco but went back to Mexico. I was brought back here when I was four years of age. We lived in mobile homes, trailers. Things improved when my Dad stopped consuming alcohol. He was then able to build a home. I went to Mercedes High School and graduated through their distinguished plan. I then went to STC in Weslaco but I got in with wrong crowd. It was a huge struggle for me, to get away from drugs and alcohol.”

Delgado’s work involves helping families in Indian Hills East, Cameron Park and Peña, a colonia just outside of Edinburg. He gave a shout out to United Health Foundation for investing in the promotoras program. He said that as a result of the funding the program would soon be expanded to underserved areas in Las Milpas.