Addressing the Root Causes of Poor Health

Merinda Stricklen says she’s a dreamer, and the giant vision board in her office supports that description. One of her favorite quotes reads, “Faith doesn’t make things easy. It makes them possible.”

“That is my mantra,” says Stricklen, the director of FamilyCare’s Health and Community Education Department. “‘No’ isn’t an answer to me. I don’t know what ‘no’ means. If you tell me you have a need, I’m going to figure out how to make it happen.”

This resilient optimism has helped Stricklen make FamilyCare’s Health and Community Education program (HACE) such a fast success. Started less than a year ago in May 2023, HACE seeks to address the root causes of poor health, such as being unable to afford nutritious food or access health education. For the 84% of FamilyCare patients earning below the federal poverty line, programs like these change lives.

Consider just one of HACE’s many initiatives: the FARMacy program. Created through a partnership with Vandalia Health, Gritt’s Farm, and UniCare, this program provided free produce to low-income West Virginians for 15 weeks during the summer of 2023.

It was so successful that our patients didn’t want to stop meeting after 15 weeks. They were all friends,” Stricklen says. “One man actually said he’d stopped leaving his house since his mother passed away the year before. And this program motivated him to get out and start taking care of himself again.”

Since the patients who participated in the FARMacy program wanted to continue meeting, HACE created a monthly diabetes support group and a private Facebook group for them. Everyone stayed in touch, and HACE even hosted a holiday party for the group last December.

In addition to these initiatives, HACE has hosted free healthy and diabetes-friendly cooking classes, started school-based community gardens, and led workshops educating young people about the risks of smoking.

Through a partnership with Vandalia Health, HACE’s Healthy Neighborhoods Program is providing low-income West Virginians with reloadable debit cards to buy groceries at Dollar General Stores. Through a partnership with Mountaineer Food Bank and The Health Plan, HACE’s Food for Health Program is also providing multiple free boxes of nutritional food monthly to low-income families.

Every one of these programs is possible largely because of Stricklen’s ability to hustle and persistently apply for the necessary grants. Despite the large impact the HACE program has already had, Stricklen is always ready to do more.

“I don’t think FamilyCare knew what they were getting when they hired me,” Stricklen says. “Because I never do just one thing.”

In the next year, Stricklen hopes to add a program that distributes free menstrual hygiene kits and expand the reloadable debit card program so patients can purchase groceries at Walmart and Kroger. She also intends to add more programs that are accessible for patients without reliable transportation, such as online cooking classes.

Although this will definitely require a lot of hard work, the impact that HACE has inspires Stricklen to keep going.

“We had a dad with five kids participate in our Food for Health program, and he was crying, telling us we didn’t even know how much of a difference this would make,” Stricklen says, tearing up. “You touch these lives, and then you realize there’s so many other lives that you need to touch. And that’s where I say my dreams are big, but I’m going to do it. Because our patients need it.”

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