Health and Home

An Interview with Sharon + Tracey

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In the United States, about 15% of Americans live without health insurance, a significant barrier to health access. Among homeless Americans, this percentage rises to 70%. The nurse’s station at HQ is a direct response to this disproportionate need; our youth, many of whom are uninsured, deserve a space where they can access healthcare services. We spoke to Nurse Sharon Hiemstra and Educator Tracey Fahner about the important resources they provide: first aid, education, and advice.

The Kent County Health Department mission statement is “to serve, protect and promote a healthy community for all.” Tracey Fahner, a public health educator with the department, shares what this means to her: “it means that we will do everything in our power to make sure that the Kent County community is supported – without judgment – to be healthy.” Tracey supports the community by providing scientifically-accurate information, especially around sexual health, in order to promote readiness through education.

Every month, Tracey comes to HQ with a bevy of pamphlets, handouts, models – even games, quizzes, and prizes – to engage our youth in thinking about their sexual health. For a demographic where STI rates can range as high as 32%, where longer periods of homelessness correlate to a higher likelihood of engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors, and in a society where sexual stigmatization is still prevalent, her work equips youth with knowledge that can be difficult or impossible to attain elsewhere. “With any group, it’s important to be clued in to what the health barriers are; if you don’t bring to the table what they need, it’s hard to be effective.” Knowing this, Tracey takes an approach to education which keeps in mind the populations she services: it’s meeting people where they are at.

But Tracey also identifies the importance of a two-part approach to health access: “No matter what a person is going through, they should have access to not only health education, but also health services.” This is where Sharon Hiemstra comes in: Sharon is a public health nurse with the Kent County Health Department, and her work outside of HQ involves visiting mothers and infants at their homes, providing first aid, health advice, and support.

“It’s important for people to have a health home,” she says. A health home: a place where people can access healthcare in a space where their identities are respected and their healthcare needs are met and addressed. A place to belong within the healthcare community.” At HQ, Sharon helps our youth create a connection to a health home, whether that be through a primary care practitioner, urgent care, or an emergency room. Our Nurses’ Station becomes a space where youth can receive care, hold conversations, ask questions, and have a confidential meeting space with their nurse. Additionally, Sharon and Tracy help our youth connect with Kent County’s diverse health programs: “meeting people where they’re at is extremely important,” Sharon remarks, “having that information, education, and services available is extremely vital.”

Sharon and Tracy – as well as our other health service partners, collaborators and volunteers – including the Kirkhof College of Nursing at Grand Valley State University, The Red Project, Molina Healthcare, Blue Cross Complete, among others – are part of our commitment to creating change and offering resources as part of a network of support. Creating a space where you have consistent access to healthcare and health information is one way our partners are helping to turn barriers into supports for youth seeking stability.

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