Jan/Feb response: Bringing Light to the Journey
Wesley Community and Health Centers in Phoenix offers health and wholeness to its changing communities
by Nile Sprague with Tara Barnes
Wesley Community and Health Centers began in 1950 as a small community center in south central Phoenix. Today, Wesley has three Phoenix campuses, and it continues to grow. Its health clinics and community centers work together to provide a holistic approach to well-being and build what Chief Executive Director Blaine Bandi calls a vibrant, effective connection with the community.
The health clinics offer a wide range of services, including family medicine, prenatal care, chronic disease management, vaccinations, breast cancer screening, counseling and more. The health center services are offered on a sliding scale based on family size and income for those who are uninsured.The community center offers exercise and nutrition classes and gym as well as a community garden and kitchen. It also offers English-as-a-second-language classes and afterschool and summer care for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Commnity center programs rely on grants, donations and partnerships to provide programming for free or reduced rates.
As a national mission institution, Wesley is supported by United Methodist Women through grants, training, technical support and member involvement. Members’ generous Mission Giving is what enables United Methodist Women to help organizations like Wesley across the country uplift their communities.
Wesley has always served low-income, primarily Hispanic communities. Almost all staff are bilingual. The original community center focused on adult English classes and citizenship activities, then expanded to include more children’s programming as a gymnasium was added. The mother and baby clinics of the 1970s and 1980s also expanded into more comprehensive health-care offerings. The original building, on 10th Street, known as the Phoenix Campus, is a physical example of Wesley’s growing outreach as additions were built onto the site as the centers needed to expand.
The Golden Gate campus, about 7 miles from the Phoenix Campus is the biggest and most active, with modern facilities built to meet health-care and community needs. Like the original location, it has clinics and a gym, and this is also where the garden and community kitchen are located. The third location, the Health Center at Coffelt, is a small clinic near an affordable-housing complex and low-income housing neighborhood next to a nice park.
What makes Wesley unique is its understanding of the social determinants of health, which are often a much better predictor of health status than genetics, Bandi explained, factors such as education level, first language and housing and employment status. So Wesley intentionally offers additional support to clinical care.
“This is where the community center comes in,” Bandi said. “The community center wraps services complementary to treating people and keeping them well and healthy. There probably isn’t an exercise class where you go to the doctor. We do have exercise classes. Your doctor probably doesn’t offer an ESL class or a class that will help you find a job. We do that here. More than likely there isn’t an afterschool program where you go to the doctor. Here, we do that. The health centers and community centers complement each other in helping us be better stewards, better respondents to the needs of our community.”
Equipping for change
About 30 women were exercising in the gym when I arrived at the Golden Gate Campus early on a Thursday morning. In the kitchen I met Lucia Sisterna, who had just started her job as the kitchen manager a few months before. She was making a peach and kale salad for the women to eat after their exercise class, which was being led in Spanish by J-Lee Stewart. Sisterna partners with Stewart to offer participants natural and healthy foods.
“I love this job because I love to cook,” Sisterna said about her first professional cooking job. “And I also like that I can help people understand that good food isn’t necessarily bad tasting. It’s very simple. And it’s still pretty yummy.”
The meals aren’t just served to the program participants. They also learn how to make the meals and often take ingredients home. Some of the ingredients are grown right in the center’s garden. The exercise and nutrition classes, according to Stewart, aren’t just about losing weight but are also about disease prevention and mental health.
“The feedback that I get from the participants is great, because they see the changes,” Stewart said. “They gradually start feeling better, and then say they have fewer back problems, fewer headaches, fewer joint problems. They’re stronger. They feel more awake and have more energy. They sleep better. They get less angry. They’re a little bit happier. And the more they do this, the more they feel the change that they were looking for. They improve their health—physical, mental and emotional.”
The students at the afterschool and day-care programs provided at Wesley also learn about good health and nutrition and exercise. It’s part of Wesley’s goal of caring for the whole person and the whole family. The children’s programs also offer homework assistance, structured physical activity, arts and crafts, snacks, gardening and educational activities in science, math, reading and cultural awareness.
Graciela Ohlmaier says she’s seen improvements in her grandchildren’s behavior since they’ve been attending Wesley’s programs. She often helps take care of her four grandchildren, who have been in the program for about six years. She appreciates the positive changes she’s seen in their lives.
Ohlmaier is also a patient of Wesley’s health clinic. A regular checkup in July found abnormalities in her mammogram. A biopsy, which she also received at Wesley, showed that her breast cancer had returned. She’s now receiving treatment.
“I’m not afraid because I have a lot of faith in God,” she said. “The size of the tumors is quite small. I caught them just in time.”
Among its other clinical offerings, Wesley is a Well Woman HealthCheck Program contractor and a Title X Family Planning site. The health centers offer culturally competent family-planning services, including exams, testing, education, birth control and treatment to uninsured or low-income community members. WWHP provides free breast and cervical cancer screening for those who are low income, uninsured or underinsured.
Nancy Vasquez is Wesley’s patient navigator for WWHP. A casual conversation she had with Ohlmaier is what encouraged Ohlmaier to get screened. Vasquez’ role, as her title implies, is to help patients navigate the health-care process. She helps them with paperwork and communication and connects them to services—and not just clinical services but counseling and financial resources. She says she loves the one-on-one with patients.
“A patient recently told me that his wife had gone to many different places, but it was here that his wife was finally diagnosed and treated, and she’s doing so much better,” Vasquez said. “He said they’d gone to specialists and spent so much money that they didn’t have, but at Wesley she was diagnosed with the right illness and they didn’t have to spend their whole life savings getting her treatment. Stories like that just really touch your heart.”
Vasquez helps empower patients to ask questions, advocate for themselves and come to her if they need help. She’s often a shoulder to cry on. She’s a connector, a way Wesley goes out into the community as well as being a place to which the community can turn. She helps eliminate barriers.
“Our job at its core is eliminating barriers, building bridges, making it easier for people to access services,” said Bandi.
Mikala Balk is Wesley’s family planning and women’s health program manager. She manages Wesley’s federal family-planning grant. She too emphasizes the importance of supporting patients throughout the process.
“We take someone through the screening and the diagnostic and the biopsy. But if Nancy has someone she’s navigating because they’ve been diagnosed, part of my role is to make sure that we have somewhere for those patients to go after that,” she said. “We’re not just saying, ‘Okay, now go figure it out.’ We find somewhere for them to go and services for them beyond us.”
The Health Center at Coffelt opened in March 2021 to provide health care to people where they live. Raven Burrell is a physician assistant who works at the health center to provide all-encompassing care, as she describes it. At the location, which includes a laboratory, patients come for well-woman checks, well-child checks, diabetes and blood pressure management, mammograms and prenatal care, among other services.
“We’re a primary-care home to make sure patients’ entire well-being is cared for, not just physical health but their mental-emotional housing as well,” Burrell said. “Looking at the social determinants of health, we try to make sure that we treat the whole person.
“I love the site here,” she continued. “I think it is wonderful that we get to work here in the Coffelt area to be a primary-care home. Access to transportation or even just to a provider can sometimes be difficult. Working right here in the community is fulfilling for me to connect with patients on the health level but also just to see how they’re doing to bring them some light to their journey.”
I spoke over Zoom with Tringo Werke and her daughter, Addisalem Atnafu, who served as translator for her mother, a role she also fills when Werke visits Wesley’s health clinic for checkups. Werke worked as a teacher in Hawassa, Ethiopia, before moving to the United States to live with her daughter and three grandchildren. She’s lived in Phoenix for seven years. Wesley’s clinic helps her manage her diabetes.
“I’m very thankful to have the clinic,” Werke said. “The doctors are very caring.”
Atnafu, who works as a hostess in a local restaurant, appreciates the low cost of checkups.
In response to the pandemic, virtual visits have increased, and it’s a service Wesley intends to continue as another way to meet people where they are.
To help extend its reach, Wesley partners with other community organizations.
“We partner with other entities because there will always be more need than we can address on our own,” Bandi said. “And we shouldn’t feel like we need to try and address it on our own.”
Bandi talked about a mobile food market for which Wesley hosts food drives, the mobile health-care unit from a nearby hospital that visits its parking lot, and working with the Mayo Clinic for clinical services and with Arizona State University to deliver free internet to their neighborhood. They’re also a training site for medical students, some of whom later become Wesley employees.
Bandi says Wesley really looks to the community for guidance in the programs and services it provides.
“Half of our board members are made up of people who utilize our services,” Bandi said. “We need their input. We need to understand. We need to show the community that this is their facility, their services, and that it’s community directed what we do.”
Wesley and United Methodist Women
One of Wesley’s great community partnerships is with United Methodist Women. Bandi calls Wesley’s relationship with United Methodist Women historic, long lasting and consistent, and that in addition to support from the national organization as a national mission institution, local members are ready to volunteer and provide donations and supplies.
“Many of the local members here support our afterschool program with supplies and backpacks when kids go back to school. They also support the big Christmas party for our kids and kids in the community, many of whom otherwise wouldn’t get a Christmas present or a gift. They donate everything you can imagine, from necessities like socks and underwear and pants and shoes to toys and games and others and everything in between,” Bandi said. “United Methodist Women at various churches have been very, very kind in meeting those needs and others.”
Members of United Methodist Women in the Phoenix area and Desert Southwest Conference credit longtime executive director Betty Mathis for the deep connection between the national mission institution and United Methodist Women members.
“Betty had such a wonderful connection with the women and great enthusiasm,” said Beverly Secrist, a United Methodist Women leader in the Desert Southwest Conference and frequent Wesley volunteer. “I sincerely believe that many women supported Wesley because of her. I have always believed United Methodist Women should support their regional mission institutions, and Betty made that easy.”
Bandi trained under Mathis before she retired in 2019. Mathis passed away in August 2021. Bandi calls Wesley’s continued growth a part of Mathis’ legacy. One of Mathis’ traditions Bandi continues is speaking about Wesley to local churches and United Methodist Women gatherings.
“I first met Betty Mathis in the 1990s, when she came to my church to give a program on Wesley Community Center and how we can help,” said Carla Whitmire, conference communications coordinator for the Desert Southwest United Methodist Women, who has volunteered at Wesley since the mid-1990s. “I had a relationship with her for over 30 years that was filled with great joy. One of the first things I did was participate in the Christmas gift program. I went to Wesley to help record information from parents about what the kids wanted as Christmas gifts. It was wonderful to see the new program just getting started. And it’s been fun since then to see the program change and grow. My United Methodist Women unit donates gifts every year.”
Whitmire also said that when the health clinics first opened, Mathis encouraged United Methodist Women members to come get care and spread the word. Local and district United Methodist Women also held meetings and gatherings at the center, a tradition that continues as Wesley is able to open up more safely. Whitmire praises Bandi as well, knowing the large shoes he has to fill, especially for how the centers responded to the COVID pandemic.
“He was quick to respond and create ways to maintain services to the community, both with the health-care center and with the afterschool program, which became a school program when it brought the kids in so that they could do their remote learning here. For so many in the community who didn’t have internet options or child care, Wesley was a source of help.”
Wesley, like many United Methodist Women-related national mission institutions, knows how to adapt and change. Its original location is now in the flight path of the growing Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The original Golden Gate community is now the rental car terminal. A new home built next to the 10th Street location is the first built in years, Bandi said, as the government continues to buy property to expand the airport and community members move. The Phoenix campus is now harder to get to as well. Yet Wesley continues to take care of its community while growing and changing and reaching out, kind of like United Methodist Women.
“We want the community to know this is where you can go for care, for services that are designed specifically for you, for you the way you are, how you are, who you are,” Bandi said. “We’re here for everyone, not just for those with nowhere to go. And we will never give up.”
Nile Sprague is a photojournalist in Santa Rosa, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.