More than medicine: SMCS’s immigrant and wellness services offer support in the Price Hill area

The classic adage states: “If a person doesn’t have their health, they have nothing.” For those whose lives are ensnared in poverty, that truism is amplified. The stress of constant struggle creates health problems; poor health renders one unable to manage life effectively — and a vicious cycle persists.

Santa Maria Community Services (SMCS), which was founded in 1897, plays a vital role in the community via support services that help approximately 4,000 economically disadvantaged people, particularly in the Price Hill area. Aiding their clients’ health is an organizational focal point. SMCS’s health and wellness program, which was founded in 2002, provides resources that have assisted approximately 800 people this year. Among its clientele, 80% speak English as a second language.

Luz Elena Schemmel, SMCS’s program director for immigrant and wellness services, says that a key element of the program is helping its clients have a “home” for healthcare services.

“Too many of our clients use the emergency room for routine medical needs,” she says. “It’s inefficient, expensive, and doesn’t provide the most effective care. Having a primary care doctor will make it much easier for our clients to manage their healthcare.”

Education and support are the primary ways SMCS helps its wellness clients. The organization’s most well-known event is its annual springtime Health Fair. Hosted by the Price Hill Recreation Center, the event provides an array of health services — mammograms, cholesterol screenings, blood-sugar exams, vision tests, and others.

Ironically, the American lifestyle, ostensibly a symbol of prosperity, can be a detriment to the health of the foreign-born clients SMCS serves.

“Our clients from Latin America, particularly those born in villages, are used to walking where they need to go,” Schemmel says. “That, at least, provides some exercise. Once they’re here, they become more used to riding in a bus or car somewhere, and get little exercise. And it can be cheaper to go to McDonald’s and get a $1 burger than it is to prepare a meal.”

To reverse this trend, SMCS provides monthly cooking classes to help clients prepare nutritious food with limited resources. Also, through a partnership with Turner Farms, SMCS provides its clients fresh produce and, with contributions from clients and volunteers, operates a community garden.

She says one of SMCS’s most pressing wellness needs is subsidizing flu vaccinations for its clients. In past years, benefactors have provided support, enabling SMCS to offer the shots, but the funds aren’t there this season. And the need for resources to help SMCS secure the services of bilingual caseworkers, therapists, and medical providers is essential.

Schemmel emphasizes that SMCS is a resource for anyone with economic challenges: “Some people think we’re just here to help the Hispanic community. That’s not the case at all. The challenges people in poverty face are universal, and we’re here to provide support to anyone that needs it.”