Outside a pop-up medical clinic in Webb County, Texas, a wide-eyed woman stood in shocked silence, suddenly able to see the world in sharp focus for the first time after receiving a pair of glasses from Operation Health and Wellness, a Texas A&M Colonias Program collaboration with the U.S. Army Reserve and Navy to bring hundreds of low-income community residents necessary and no cost health services.
The two-week initiative ended June 29.
Even the most basic health care is often too costly for inhabitants of South Texas colonias — impoverished, relatively undeveloped villages on the U.S. side of the Texas-Mexico border.
Operation Health and Wellness, the first such Army-Navy collaboration with the Colonias Program, offered access to military doctors, nurses, opticians and personnel in the U.S. Army Reserve Center at Laredo Community College. The medical team included student volunteers from Texas A&M Corpus Christi College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Texas A&M International University, and Texas A&M Health Science Center who provided translation services and filled in as needed.
“I’ve never seen this much help for us before,” said Juanita Martinez, a 64-year-old Santa Teresita resident, who came in for an eye exam and reading glasses. “There are a lot of us who don’t have the means to pay for a doctor. If this could be done once a year, that would really help us a lot.”
The military personnel acted within the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training initiative, a civil-military program that builds mutually beneficial partnerships between U.S. communities and the DoD. In addition to providing help to local communities, the operation allows soldiers to train on equipment and spend time helping local people, according to U.S. Army Sgt. Ruben Carlos Solomon.
“I’ve done similar medical clinics in Iraq,” Solomon said. “The activity was a lot more dangerous there. Everyone here is very supportive. People from the area have brought food out and expressed their support for the program. It’s been a very positive experience.”
In addition to medical check-ups, eye exams and dental work, the medical teams have also been able to identify potential future health problems and advise patients on how to avoid or treat them.
“One resident came in for just a check up and one of the doctors detected a heart murmur,” said Oscar J. Muñoz, Colonias Program director. “He was referred to a nearby clinic for further examination. To know this project saved a life, and possibly many others is the greatest reward we can have.”
Muñoz said his office is working to bring more, similar operations to Laredo and expand them to other border regions. For patients who were seen and need follow-up care, he said, a federally funded community health center in Laredo has agreed to serve those patients for little or no cost.
25 years of service to the Colonias
Operation Health and Wellness coincides in the 25th year of the Texas A&M Colonias Program. Established by the Texas Legislature in 1991 and housed within the Texas A&M College of Architecture, the Colonias Program strives to enhance the quality of life and the quality of place for residents in the unincorporated, unregulated, substandard settlements on the border. Extending its service to underdeveloped communities across Texas, the Colonias Program serves nearly a million residents every year through 42 resource centers, creating sustainable solutions to local challenges.
With the goal of increasing residents’ abilities to become self-sufficient, enhancing the overall quality of life for the individual and for the community, these centers provide access to a wide array of social programs such as educational services such as dropout prevention and literacy, graduate equivalency and job training and referrals, vital health and human services, and economic and community development assistance.
The heart and soul of the program are the “promotoras,” specially trained colonia residents who work door-to-door throughout their communities, disseminating useful knowledge to help bridge language and cultural communication barriers that exist between their often-isolated neighbors in need and social service providers.