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By Taylor Knopf
This week, a group of UNC-Chapel Hill students piled into their vehicles and headed off for spring break. But instead of heading for the coast or mountains, their first stop was the Robeson County city of Lumberton.
Close to two dozen students opted to spend their vacation taking a service-learning course aimed at helping communities affected by Hurricane Matthew. UNC partnered with churches and local health organizations to offer two free health clinics – the first on Tuesday in Robeson County and the second on Thursday in Columbus County.
“I’ve lived here all my life, but didn’t know a lot about the rural population,” said UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Alexis Payton from Raleigh. “I knew there was a disparity between rural and urban counties. I’m just getting to learn more about that.”
Inside the health clinic on Tuesday, medical stations lined three rooms of a former Lumberton ammunition factory. It serves as a temporary site for Robeson County Church and Community Center displaced by the hurricane.
At intake tables, community members filled out basic forms with age and gender but no identifying information. Student volunteers asked for some brief medical history such as tobacco use, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.
From there, patients could visit the nutrition table, get their vitals taken, or have an eye exam or HIV screening. Multiple stations offered information about free local programs, including some for new or expectant mothers or people with diabetes. Volunteers at a health care navigation table showed Robeson residents available services and helped them schedule appointments.
Many stopped at the mental health station where two professionals screened for depression and substance abuse. Often people wanted to share their experiences of Hurricane Matthew.
One woman confided in volunteer Richard Unkiewicz, a psychologist from Goldsboro’s Cherry Hospital, about her husband’s cocaine use. Unkiewicz said she is stressed and doesn’t know what to do, so he wrote her a referral to get some help.
“We try to get them to tell us a little bit about themselves,” he explained. “If they don’t want to talk, that’s fine. Usually, more cases than not, they will start talking. They start revealing things, but they have to connect with you.”
Despite the rain Tuesday morning, clinic volunteers saw more than 50 patients that afternoon. Organizers decided to extend the Lumberton clinic a second day and handed out flyers at motels where many are still homeless as a result of the hurricane.
When Matthew raged through Lumberton in October, about 20 inches of rain filled the sanctuary of Branch Street United Methodist Church.
The church lost everything except three pews and a piano. A month went by before the congregation could even hold a service in its adjoining fellowship hall. Three out of 60 church members were displaced from their homes due to flooding.
“We were on an island, you go this way hoping you could get home, you would have to turn around and go another way because of the floods and bridges washed out,” said Rev. Douglas Locklear.
“We’ve never seen anything like this. For weeks it looked like you were on the shore lines, so much pure white sand,” he continued.
Locklear said that without flood insurance, it will take about $150,000 to repair the damage to his sanctuary. Church members have worked three nights a week on repairs.
Forty-year Robeson County resident Sheila Hammonds took advantage of the Lumberton health clinic Tuesday. She and her two children have been living with her sister since the hurricane and she said she considers herself lucky not to be in a shelter or motel. The first floor of Hammonds’ apartment complex flooded, and she’s been told by management she can hopefully return home late this spring.
Hammonds works at the Church and Community Center where donations are received and redistributed.
“We are trying to help people get back on their feet,” she said. “It may not be as good as it was before, but at least they have somewhere in the community they can come and receive care.”
Branch Street UMC partnered with Christ United Methodist in Chapel Hill which also sent volunteers with the UNC clinic team. Christ United sends volunteers to the area every few months.
“The idea is you keep coming down,” said church volunteer Scottie Pitner. “Don’t forget people, because they feel forgotten.”
Locklear said he and his community appreciate the students and volunteers who set up the health screenings.
“For UNC-Chapel Hill to come and do this health clinic means so much to us, especially our elders who live on a fixed income,” he said. “They have to make a choice every month to get their blood pressure or diabetes checked or pay their light bill.”
Students and staff from UNC-Pembroke were not on spring break, yet came by to lend a hand.
Jennifer Twaddell, UNC-Pembroke Interim chair of nursing, said Pembroke is a name community members recognize and acts as a bridge into the community. So when UNC-Chapel Hill asked Pembroke to partner in the clinics, she couldn’t say no.
“These guys are doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they are not getting credit for this,” she said of her students working the clinic.
Christina Tunstall is a second year nursing student at UNC-Pembroke who volunteered Tuesday taking blood pressures at the clinic. She said all the people she checked ran high.
“A lot of people specifically in this area may not have the finances or insurance to go to the community hospital or clinic where they sometimes charge for things like blood pressure or blood glucose checks,” she added. “So it’s really important for people to have a place to go to for simple screenings.”
Tunstall lives in Fayetteville and her husband serves on Fort Bragg. Being from a military family and moving a lot, she said she didn’t always connect with the residents around her. But she is glad to connect with the community members in Robeson County.
“It’s awesome to go to a school that places a lot of importance on serving the local community,” Tunstall said.