After spending two weeks in Moultrie, nursing student Lindsey Bramlett may never look at the produce section of a grocery store in the same way again.
Bramlett, one of more than 80 health care students and professionals who worked with migrant farm workers and their children, said she found a new appreciation for those who pick our fruits and vegetables.
At night the students, who wrapped up their stay on Friday, visited camps and farms where they saw adults. During the days they gave checkups to students in the Colquitt County School System’s migrant summer school.
Prevalent issues for the adults included feet exposed to water and farm chemicals for extended periods of time, children and adults with dental problems and workers with musculoskeletal pains from bending and stooping for long periods of time.
Bramlett, a 22-year-old student at the Emory University School of Nursing, observed workers picking corn and saw the difficulty of the work the farm laborers perform.
“Just thinking where that (food) comes from now is so much different,” she said. “It’s not just going to Kroger and picking up a bag of peaches. This experience really opened my eyes.”
Bramlett, who like some of the other students received course credit for the trip, said she is interested in returning next year and her experience may have inspired her to seek employment in a rural environment after college.
“I came down here kind of knowing what to expect,” she said. “Some of my friends were, like, ‘What are you doing down there?’ It’s been great. I love it. I love Moultrie.”
Among the work the students performed was washing and giving pedicures to workers’ tired feet. They also checked hemoglobin and glucose levels, measured height and weight for body mass index purposes, and performed blood pressure, hearing and vision tests.
“We’ve changed so many of their lives in the two weeks we’ve been down here,” Bramlett. “Overall, it’s how appreciative everybody we’ve worked for in the two weeks are. Even if they can’t speak English, their faces light up.
“It’s incredible, just seeing them holding up a foot lotion bottle and saying ‘yes.’”
Joining Emory were students and staff from Clayton State College, Darton College, Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, said Judith Wold, who holds a Ph.D. in education administration and led the group in Moultrie.
As in the previous 19 years that Emory has been involved in the summer health program, dental, foot and back problems are among the most common, Wold said. The group saw 700 to 1,000 people during the two weeks, and students collectively earned about 3,000 credit hours. On at least one occasion they did not leave a camp until 12:45 a.m. and saw everyone who turned out.
“Dental is the biggest problem among adults and children,” she said. “Adults have a lot of back pain and skin rashes, particularly foot problems.”
The touch of hands giving foot care was one of the most appreciated among the adults at the camps visited, Wold said. Workers also received clean socks and flip flops.
“It’s really a moving experience,” she said. “It’s intentional comfort touch. Just the fact students lay hands on them (and) they’re cared for, for just a few minutes.
“The workers are humble. They are thankful for what they do for them.”
All of the students applied to take part in the program, many primarily because of a sense of social responsibility and interest in public health nursing, Wold said. The group received a special rate from a Moultrie hotel and slept four to a room to make money stretch. They also were fed lunch each day by a different church, saving on spending for food.
For students, a $100 fee toward accommodations is required. Some students who returned for a second year as volunteer paid for all of their costs, Wold said.
“The students really come away from here with a different view of fruits and vegetables and how they come to be on the table,” she said.
Neither the migrant health program, which has been held each summer for at least 25 years, nor the migrant summer school require any local funds from the school system, Assistant Schools Superintendent Mo Yearta said.
All money comes from federal migrant funds, including the cost of teachers, paraprofessionals and even bus drivers, she said. In previous years the school system has touted the health program, but has not in recent years due to public reaction to media stories.
“In the last nine or 10 years there have been so many negative comments about providing medical services to people who (members of the public) say are illegals, or people they think are illegals,” she said. “It gets a lot of negative comments in the community.”
The school system’s relationship with the health care workers is basically to let them examine students during the school day, Yearta said.
“During summer school we have a history of allowing this group of health workers to come down and work with the migrant children. The school system doesn’t feed them or transport them. It’s the community and all these volunteers.”
In 2010, the last year for which University of Georgia figures are available, Colquitt County had the largest farm gate agricultural sales with $475 million — $126 million of that was vegetables, also leading the state.