“Believing in the integrity and dignity that each person deserves, being part of the solution, and knowing that I have served as a bridge between marginalized people and the NIH/NLM information resource is an enormously satisfying experience for me.”
Beth Emmerling, M.L.S.
The Solidarity Center, Baltimore MD
What is your position?
I am a free-lance adult literacy teacher, as well as a librarian. As the Education/Outreach Manager at The Solidarity Center in Baltimore, MD, I work to make health care and information accessible to all, especially the poor and low-wage workers.
Is there something in your own personal story that led you to do the work you do?
My extended family lived in a rural area of Western Pennsylvania which meant that they never had access to really good health care or health information. There were “remedies” handed down generationally and when something extreme happened they would travel the two hours to the closest hospital.
My parents moved to the D.C. area when I was quite young so I grew up with excellent healthcare. My mother and then I would search for the best information about health issues and send it to our extended family. Thus began my commitment to bridging a health information gap.
I have been a community activist for years, focusing my work on marginalized community members in Baltimore city. With the luxury of higher education, I am committed to sharing my knowledge and skills with those who have not had the same access to education. Feeding the homeless, working on legislation, and working with low-wage workers fighting to make a living wage have given me much insight. Being part of a Books-n-BBQ community, in which we take (free) books to people and work to increase literacy skills, has also been exciting. In my experience, people on the low end of the socio-economic scale have been left behind in many ways. Poverty and the great stress that accompanies it have a profound impact on a person’s health. Blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and exposure to the elements are all of special concern in this community.
The reliable health information offered by NIH/NLM websites offers immediate knowledge about diseases and suggestions for how to improve health issues. While in my M.L.S. program, I had the great fortune to work with Dr. Bo Xie on her older adults training classes. I saw firsthand how quickly people learned the technological skills that brought them access to Medline Plus and, sometimes, PubMed. I saw how the older adults learned new health information and wanted to put tips they learned into practice.
The combination of all of this experience led me to think about ways I could reach the marginalized people I worked with. I was aware that members of the low-wage population worked two, even three, jobs so they needed a way to bring the help to them. Homeless folks can be hard to reach because of the transitory nature of their lives, but can be the most committed students. When I learned of funding that could help make my wishes come true, I was thrilled as I am now portable and hold classes in many locations.
What do you love most about your work?
The excitement many students have to learn new skills to find relevant information about their health concerns. Seeing students utilize information to make better health choices is amazing. A few students learned about the importance of mammograms and took advantage of the free mammogram program available in Baltimore city. Others learned some stress reduction techniques that, when practiced in class, lowered their blood pressure by the end of the session. Watching a group of women in a subsidized housing complex attend classes and then start a group to work on stress relieving techniques was exciting.
Believing in the integrity and dignity that each person deserves, being part of the solution, and knowing that I have served as a bridge between marginalized people and the NIH/NLM information resource is an enormously satisfying experience for me.
What is the biggest challenge in what you do?
Challenges I face are:
• finding the best times and places to meet the constraints of the population I work with.
• running classes that students can come to whenever possible and still learn what they need, rather than proceeding strictly on a chronological basis.
• not having the ability to contact people who don’t have phones or permanent addresses, which impacts my ability to send out reminder messages for classes.
What has been the most fulfilling part of your work in terms of getting health information out to your community?
Connecting people with information about their health concerns and the websites’ concrete suggestions for making better health care choices has been important to me. Watching students put these suggestions to use, as they continue to discover additional resources to help themselves, reveals their new self-reliance for finding medical information and treatment options and means I have done my job.
What do you see as the biggest health concerns in the community you serve?
The impact of poverty on health is the number one health concern amongst all of the people who I work with. An enormous health inequity exists and extensive research has shown that class, race and gender play a crucial role in determining quality of life and life-span. I see this first hand. As minimal services continue to be cut, the health of those impacted worsens. It is a public health issue that is frequently swept under the rug.
How did you first come to know NN/LM SE/A?
I learned about NN/LM SE/A while in my M.L.S. program. I had the chance to work on research that was funded by NN/LM SE/A, which allowed me to discover the many resources available. I think it is important to note that one of the benefits, most unexpected, is telling students where the funding for the classes has come from. Students are frequently pleasantly surprised.
In what ways has NN/LM SE/A been of help to you?
They have been the core of my work. Without the financial and reference material available I would simply not be able to do this work.
What advice would you give others who are interested in doing health outreach work in their communities?
I had an advantage in that I was already working with my target populations, which meant I had some “street cred” in terms of trust. Show up at activities held by and for your target population. I was surprised how quickly word of mouth spread about the classes and the number of folks who sought me out. Finding key members of communities and getting them to participate is a great way to gain the trust of a wider community. If you find groups willing to partner with your work it strengthens your network and can increase the success of your program.
If you would like to share your story or suggest another person for our “Inspiring People” feature, please email Nancy Patterson, Community Outreach Coordinator at: firstname.lastname@example.org.