CHAMPAIGN — Aaron Brown grew up in financial hardship in Chesapeake, Va., where many of his neighbors had similar struggles.
Later, when he worked at a health clinic, he saw patients who couldn’t afford their medicine, even with government assistance.
He also lost his mother to complications from cancer, in part because their family didn’t have easy access to specialists who could have told them what to watch out for.
Now a second-year medical student at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Brown wants to help underserved communities get access to better health care — by first listening to what they need.
He has organized a unique community health fair Sunday at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign, with representatives from health clinics, support services and other agencies — but also room for dialogue with community residents.
“This is something I always wanted to do, just go back and look out for my community,” said Brown, 30. “Why wait until I graduate?”
The Carle Illinois Community Health and Wellness Fair is scheduled for noon to 4:30 p.m. at the club, 201 E. Park St., C. Brown said it’s the perfect site because it is “rooted in the community.”
Brown wants to hear from them about barriers to good health, such as having to choose between paying bills or buying medicine; about why people may not be using mobile health clinics; and about medical issues they see in the community and what they can do as a community to support each other’s health.
“It’s more than a booth. It’s ‘How can I be of best service to you?’” he said.
One issue for many African-Americans is that they’re always taking care of others and don’t have time to take care of themselves, he said.
Brown saw that with his own mom. She developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and some of the chemotherapy she went through caused her to develop heart failure, he said. She died when Brown was a junior in college.
“We didn’t have the knowledge to really know what to do to address those things,” he said. “If she had started seeing a cardiologist during that time period, we could have gotten ahead of what was going on with her and given her medications to manage it.”
Her experience inspired his current project, as did his work as a medical assistant at a cardiovascular clinic in Virginia. There, Dr. Phillip Duncan would do community outreach, organizing grocery store tours for patients with hypertension, diabetes or high cholesterol to show them healthier options for the foods they loved, Brown said.
“We eat a lot of soul food as African-Americans. He would show modifications you could make in order to improve that, where you don’t have to skip out on what you eat and still live a healthy lifestyle,” he said.
For Sunday’s health fair, Brown reached out to other health providers and community organizations to link all those resources.
The event will include physical activities for all ages, food samples, free vision screenings, raffles and information about local health and wellness resources. Attendees can also talk with Carle Illinois medical students about health concerns and ideas for future health fairs.
Among the agencies participating are Promise HealthCare, Avicenna Community Health Center, Carle Healthy Beginnings, Champaign County Health Care Consumers, Champaign County Christian Health Center, America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, the Champaign County Housing Authority and Hermes, a medical student-run clinic on campus. Other groups will promote healthy eating, yoga and art therapy for wellness.
Brown plans to make it a quarterly event.
“I just want them to know the university itself and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine is here, not just once a year but on a continual basis,” he said. “I want people to recognize me by name, not just strangers coming in every so often.”
The event falls squarely in the medical school’s mission, said Professor Ruby Mendenhall, the college’s assistant dean for diversity and democratization of health innovation.
The college is focused on innovation but also on how to improve the way health care is delivered, and that may mean looking at new ways to reach certain segments of the population, she said.
“We also want the community inside the college of medicine in unprecedented ways. We want them to drive some of the advances in technology,” she said.
The health fairs can create that relationship, said Mendenhall, a faculty adviser on the project. The students are trying to create something that is sustainable and “deeply embedded in the community.”