On Saturday, Simpson-Waverly School will transform into a buzzing health center with physicians, puppet shows and preventive care.
Classrooms will become sites of blood draws for prostate and colorectal screenings, an employee’s office will be converted into a vision exam room, and Hartford Hospital’s mobile mammogram van will be parked outside this city neighborhood school that has turned a wellness initiative into one of the biggest community health fairs in the region.
If it wasn’t for the free mammogram that Simpson-Waverly cafeteria worker Avrill Scott accepted at the fair several years ago, she might not be alive today to praise it.
A science teacher had encouraged the 69-year-old grandmother to get her first mammogram, even though she felt no lumps and “had no pain,” Scott recalled Wednesday.
The X-ray detected abnormalities that turned out to be breast cancer. They caught it early, and after chemotherapy, Scott says she is now cancer-free.
Her story of survival — and being stunned by the initial diagnosis — is one of many testimonials that have emerged from Simpson-Waverly’s community health and wellness fair. In just six years, the event has skyrocketed in popularity as a way to address health disparities that afflict people of color, and particularly residents in the North End, an area the city has identified as beset with the highest rates for obesity, heart disease, infections and infant mortality in Hartford.
About 80 people and a few health care providers turned out for the inaugural event in 2011. Last year, roughly 800 attendees made it to the school on Waverly Street, and this time, organizer and retired teacher Geneva Williams is hoping for a thousand.
“Even if only one person shows up,” Williams said, “we’re still making a difference in that one person’s life.”
Nearly 60 health care providers will offer their services from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, including Hartford Hospital, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, UConn Health, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, mid-sized clinics and fellowships of doctors and nurses who donate their time and expertise.
The public can get free flu shots and the same cholesterol and blood pressure screenings that let Simpson-Waverly Principal Leanardo Watson know that he was stressed and needed to take better care of himself. There will be diabetes testing, dental checkups, confidential HIV and STD tests, and information on topics such as prenatal care, heart health, sickle cell anemia and lead poisoning, organizers said.
Even job counseling, free haircuts and manicures, Zumba dancing and voter registration are on tap.
“We want to do as much as we can to alleviate suffering wherever we can,” said Dr. Roy Kellerman, a primary care physician and internist in Bloomfield who volunteers through the Bethesda Medical Mission.
Williams was a veteran Hartford teacher but new to Simpson-Waverly six years ago when she noticed a trend of tardiness and chronic absenteeism among the seventh- and eighth-graders in her language arts classes.
As she dug into the reasons, Williams found they were often tied to health — a student stayed home to baby-sit siblings because a parent was sick, for instance, or spent the night in the emergency room for ailments that perhaps could have been treated by a primary care physician. Soon, the school began hosting talks on nutrition, women’s and men’s health, sessions that became a favorite among middle-schoolers and parents in Simpson-Waverly’s parent-teacher organization.
The community fair sprang from those school workshops with health professionals that Williams recruited through her connections with the Farmington Valley chapter of The Links Inc., a nonprofit group of African American professional women — including doctors — who perform community service through mentoring and volunteering.
The annual event remains a partnership between local members of The Links and the Simpson-Waverly school community and PTO. Eversource is a financial sponsor this year.
City educators say families became more invested in Simpson-Waverly because they could see, “Gee, we’re here to help,” as Williams put it. She spoke modestly: “I was very selfish because I wanted my kids in school and ready to learn — not tired, exhausted and so forth.”
Sharonda James, a mother of four children at the school, said she always gets her blood pressure checked at the fair, a family-friendly, four-hour stretch that includes free bicycle helmets for the first 100 children and raffle giveaways. Teachers such as Latoya Martindale, who got her first mammogram at the 2014 fair, say there is also empowerment in learning about one’s health status.
“I was walking, oblivious, and wouldn’t have known,” Martindale said of her mammogram results that turned out benign.
Dr. Lenora Williams, an obstetrician-gynecologist at UConn and longtime volunteer at the fair, said there can be fear and distrust of the medical field, particularly among African American patients, as a result of historical traumas such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted on black men in Alabama.
Former Hartford city councilman Kyle Anderson acknowledged the “stereotype” that black men often avoid going to the doctor, and said he has been urging fellow coaches in the Hartford Northend Little League to get screened for health risks.
“We have to talk about it,” said Anderson, who learned he was pre-diabetic at the fair three years ago. “We’ve got to take the elephant right out of the room.”