Free health care event helps uninsured kids

The city’s largest health fair for uninsured children drew crowds large enough to sporadically stop traffic on North Tryon Street in the University City area Saturday, with some families showing up as early as 5:30 a.m. to wait in line for free health care.

Organizers estimated 1,000 children attended the 10th annual event at the Camino Community Center, the majority of them immigrant children from families who are struggling at jobs that pay low wages.

Along with free physicals, the event provided school supplies and hundreds of backpacks for children entering Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the fall.

Among the parents who waited in line was Charlotte resident Benita Rivera, a wife and mother of twins, 8, who will be in the second grade at Pinewood Elementary. Her husband works in a restaurant kitchen, she said, and the family of four can’t easily cover the additional expenses needed for school.

Rivera is originally from Mexico and has been in the United States for a decade.

“School supplies for my sons can be as much as $100,” she said through an interpreter. “By coming here and getting the free supplies, it lets us use that money instead to buy them clothes for school.”

The Camino Community Center and adjacent Bethesda Health Clinic help an average of 2,000 low-income people per month with programs that include a food pantry associated with Loaves & Fishes.

Community center officials say they help low-income people of all races. But most clients are Latinos from Mecklenburg County, including some who are new to the United States and have never been to a doctor, clinic officials said.

The health exams are required for children to enter kindergarten in CMS, or to participate in athletic activities while in school, officials said.

It’s not uncommon for clinic staff to discover the children attending the health fair have life-threatening ailments, said Rusty Price, pastor of the The Way/Camino Church, a partner in the Camino Community Center.

The annual health fair comes at a time when the community center is preparing to launch a capital campaign that will renovate its 40,000 square feet, officials said. The project is intended to take advantage of the community center’s proximity to a planned light rail station on North Tryon Street, about 70 yards away.

That stop will allow low-income people from a broad part of the city to more easily reach the community center for free help, officials said.

“We envision a mall of services for those in need,” Price said, adding he’d like to see workforce development among the new programs added.

“We want it to be a place where people can go before they fall into the (social services) system, a place where they can find help – including satellite offices for other nonprofits that offer services.”