The movement to establish community health centers in the 1960s was born of the belief that healthcare is a civil right: that life, liberty, and happiness cannot be pursued without basic health. As a testament to this truth, we can invoke the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “…Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
By making healthcare accessible to people struggling with poverty, community health centers continue to this day to be an active expression of the civil rights movement. Thirty years ago, when Aurelia Jones-Taylor became chief executive officer of Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services (AEH), in Clarksdale, Mississippi, she approached it as an opportunity to bring her business acumen to restart a failed health center; what she ended up doing was changing the lives of an entire community.
Jones-Taylor was born and raised in The Mississippi Delta, but the poverty, lack of opportunity and racial divisions prompted her to move away and pursue a career in business administration. She never imagined she would move back, but then she was offered the opportunity to revive a failed health center: just the kind of challenge that excites her. Jones-Taylor knew the history of The Delta Health Center, the first community health center in the south: that it started in the 1960s and not only provided healthcare in an all-black community whose closest primary care was 75 miles away, but also helped with water quality issues, community gardens, prescriptions, and housing. She believed that AEH could do the same things.
With a seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm, an expansive image of community healthcare, and a small grant in hand, Jones-Taylor began AEH in 1989. She went out into the community with her warm and gregarious manner creating trust. She learned that basic needs in the community were directly impacting health issues like asthma and uncontrolled diabetes. Her own grandmother had lost her vision and her legs to diabetes. As she explains.“You have to address the social determinants–it’s all about where you live. Decent housing determines good health. There’s a lot of dilapidated housing in the Delta. That leads to cockroaches, rats and an increase in asthma. So we try to mitigate that. We provide social services. A community health center can provide essential services that others can’t provide.”
The goal at AEH isn’t just to provide healthcare, but “to improve quality of life.” What does that mean to Aurelia Jones-Taylor? “It means not being in pain all the time. It means being able to access medicine and specialists. It means being able to work.”
A perfect example of this radical and transformative thinking is the transportation initiative that Jones-Taylor created. At the end of her very first year at the center, Jones-Taylor recognized that she could refer patients to specialists but if they had no way to get there “it meant nothing.” There was no public transportation in the area and “either there was no car or the one car had gone to work. The elderly were paying as much as $20 one way to get to town.”
She applied for and got a grant to purchase two vans, which were used to transport patients as many as 75 miles each way to specialty appointments. The vans were so popular “…I contacted the Mississippi Department of Transportation and asked if we could get a grant for patient transportation. The response was that we would also have to offer rides to the general public. We took on the challenge and grew the program to one of the largest in the State of Mississippi.” Currently, AEH transportation services has 39 vehicles serving residents of a seven-county area with over 140,000 one-way trips annually to: specialists, jobs, training opportunities, dialysis, elderly and disabled services, and other human services needs.
In the 30 years since Jones-Taylor started AEH, its reach has spread beyond healthcare: “We’re the backbone of the community. A community health center is so much more than just health.” But Jones-Taylor is never one to rest on past accomplishments. With her typical passion, she exclaims “The war is not won! The fight still going on!” She points to the fact that the Mississippi Delta still suffers disparities in immunization and prenatal care. And there are new issues, like the opioid crisis. But none of this gets Jones-Taylor down: “People know I can get things done. I have seen significant change when we move the needle. I stick with it for those wins.” Children’s Health Fund is proud to partner with AEH and Aurelia Jones-Taylor to transform lives in the Mississippi Delta.