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NAACP brings wellness fair, free services to downtown Wilkes-Barre

Courtney Holcombe hands out information about the Black Equity Coalition at the Wilkes-Barre Wellness Fair, organized by the local branch of the NAACP.
Aimee Dilger
Courtney Holcombe hands out information about the Black Equity Coalition at the Wilkes-Barre Wellness Fair, organized by the local branch of the NAACP.

More than a dozen organizations convened Thursday in downtown Wilkes-Barre, bringing food, music and a message to Public Square: A community is only as healthy as its most vulnerable members.

A wellness fair planned by the Wilkes-Barre branch of the NAACP hoped to reach people that don’t have regular access to healthcare. Daryl Lewis is the assistant secretary with the civil rights group and one of the event’s lead organizers.

“If we work together to protect our most vulnerable, in turn we’re also going to improve the health, safety, security of the entire city – and also decrease some of those overhead tax costs which will in return allow us to reinvest into ourselves,” Lewis said. To him, that includes providing a wide range of free services. Volunteers handed out 150 meals from MR Lounge, a Plymouth restaurant, within a few hours.

The Pittsburgh-based Black Equity Coalition discussed ways to navigate the healthcare system and how to find nutritious food. Cleveland Way lives in North Central Pennsylvania and works as the BEC’s community engagement manager throughout the state. Food deserts, or areas without nearby grocery stores or markets, are one major health barrier he sees across the commonwealth.

Way and other volunteers spoke with nearly 100 people on Thursday, filling out surveys to better understand local challenges to a healthy lifestyle.

For example, one survey question asks people where they receive healthcare. Do they rely on a hospital’s emergency department for all of their treatment, or do they have a primary care doctor? Way wants people to know they have options, like seeking out public health centers.

“There is a means to healthy living, but we need to change all of the social determinants of health to be able to change the way you live in a healthy manner,” Way said. Those social determinants include reliable access to safe housing, transportation and medical services, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Shannon Groshek runs the Harmony House Foundation, a nonprofit that offers affordable housing for people in recovery from substance abuse disorder. Some of her clients are returning to the community after time in prison.

“We get them set up with medical assistance, food stamps, just the starter stuff until they can get into a job where they can afford everything,” she said.

Pam Keefe offered harm reduction services with her group, Michalene’s Mission. A few hours into the event, she said she handed out close to 50 doses of naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication, as well as drug testing kits and contraceptives.

Wilkes-Barre City Health Department staff was available to administer vaccines. A representative said about ten people signed up. Other health professionals conducted walk-up exams, including blood pressure screenings, while medical students from Wilkes University fielded questions about Medicare and Medicaid enrollment.

Dr. Joseph Dreier takes Anne Hoffman's blood pressure.
Aimee Dilger
Dr. Joseph Dreier takes Anne Hoffman's blood pressure.

Lewis said it was the first time he’s organized the fair with the local NAACP, but he hopes there are more like it in the future. That depends on more community partnerships, he said.

“The entire county needs these services,” Lewis said. “The entire county needs support like this. We can’t do it alone.”

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org