This summer, thousands of migrant farm workers will travel to Maine to harvest blueberries, apples, broccoli, and other crops. These are people living on the edge financially, and sometimes legally, and the hardship of the physically arduous farm work they do just adds to the stress they already live with daily.
They also have limited or no access to consistent healthcare because they may lack health insurance, don’t speak English, or are never settled in one location for long. “They’re one of the most invisible populations because they’re so mobile,” Jessica Laplante ’12 says. “They may have a home, but they’re always moving around.”
Laplante has a fellowship from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund, a program overseen by Bowdoin’s Career Planning center, to fund her summer internship with the Maine Migrant Health Program. This is a 21-year-old nonprofit based in Augusta, Maine that provides low-cost and free medical care to migrant farm workers. The Preston Fund every year gives a dozen or so qualified Bowdoin students a $4,000 stipend so they can accept unpaid positions at organizations that serve the disadvantaged.
A French major and chemistry minor who plans on attending medical school, Laplante says she took the internship to gain medical experience and to learn how a public health nonprofit operates. Plus, she adds, “I’m from a farming community. It’s part of my culture and heritage.” Laplante grew up in Aroostook County, Maine’s vast northernmost county and a major potato region. Laplante’s grandfather farmed potatoes, and now her father rents the family fields to other potato growers.
Barbara Ginley, Maine Migrant Health’s executive director, says interns and fellows gain a wide exposure to the many facets of her organization, from hands-on clinical work to backend administrative work, which can help them hone their professional aspirations. But more than this, she says, “[The work] exposes them to what it’s like to live in abject poverty, social isolation, to not have seen your children or family for three or four years, to what it’s like to deal with racism on a daily basis.”
Many of Maine Migrant Health’s patients are Spanish-speaking and come from Mexico, or are Mexican-Americans traveling to Maine from California, Texas, or the southeast states. Other migrant workers are Creole-speaking Haitians who live in Florida. Still more are Jamaican or Native Americans from Maine or Canada. Maine Migrant Health has three mobile medical units that travel around the state to treat migrant laborer. It also annually sets up its Rakers’ Center in Washington County, a healthcare/social services center for blueberry harvesters and their families. In total, Maine Migrant Health sees more than 1,200 patients annually.
This summer Laplante will work on several projects. She’ll pick up on a project started by a former Bowdoin student and current Dartmouth Medical School student, Meaghan Kennedy ’06, to provide information to Haitian workers about clinics and pharmacies in their hometowns. Many of the Haitian migrants live in Belle Glade or Fort Pierce, Florida, and are unaware of the healthcare services in their communities that offer sliding fee scales or language services, according to Ginley.
Laplante will also help the organization better understand the population of seasonal farm workers who are from Maine and who piece together a living by working throughout the year for different agricultural industries, from wreath-making in the winter to apple picking in the autumn. “Typically we’ve served mobile migrant workers,” Ginley said. “And we’re at a place to consider what’s our commitment and role in serving local workers.”
When the harvest season starts up later in the summer, Laplante also will work in the organization’s mobile units. The units are staffed with doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as behavioral health therapists who can treat depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders. During this busy time, Laplante says she’ll do patient intakes, particularly for Native Americans, and help lead information sessions on preventable diseases, such as high blood pressure. As a pre-med student, she’ll also have a chance to shadow clinicians. “This is a huge learning experience for me,” she said. “It’s exactly what I needed.”
Ginley says Laplante will experience firsthand the impact of healthcare providers, and “what a difference a healthcare provider makes. It’s not just about being a doctor in a large practice and seeing patients every 15 minutes, but about what it means to make a difference in the quality of life for someone.”
The Preston fellowship is just one of many competitive fellowships that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects, or internships.