by Tessa Matson, AmeriCorps Member, The Health Center.

“Why does a public school need this?” A parent asked me during the first couple of months The Health Center had opened a clinic at Blue Ridge Elementary School. The parent had written this question in bold lettering at the top of a survey we had sent out to parents weeks earlier. It was the same question I had asked myself before applying to my current position as the AmeriCorps member at The Health Center. Why would a public school need health resources beyond the usual school nurse. If a child is ill, wouldn’t her parents take her to the doctor?

As I’ve learned these last few months, regular doctor visits happen much less frequently then recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP recommends school-aged children (ages 4 and up) be seen annually by their primary care physician for a well-child exam. However, twenty-two percent of preschool children at Blue Ridge are past due for either a well-child exam.  This means that for many of the four-year-old children at school, the last time they saw their doctor was when they were two or three. Moreover, when children fall ill, they are often taken to the emergency room or urgent care where visit fees are costly and patients don’t necessarily have the continuity of care they would receive from their primary care physician.

The job of The Health Center, a school-based health clinic, is not to fill in or take over the role of the primary care physician. Rather, The Health Center provides basic health care to students during the school week in order to ensure students receive the medical attention they need without pulling kids out of school. The Health Center services lessen dependency on costly emergency room visits while encouraging regular doctors’ visits. In this way, students actually miss less school due to illness and learn how to be stronger medical consumers by making healthy choices.

Because The Health Center is located in school sites with large populations of at-risk youth, The Health Center is able to reach students and families that may be living under stressful circumstances and need extra support. Students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses, yet often lack the resources needed to receive medical attention. The Health Center serves these individuals by providing free health care services, free mental health services, assistance arranging transportation to outside medical appointments and subsidized co-pays for doctor referrals and prescription medicines.

So, is The Health Center needed in a public school? Yes. The need for greater medical and mental health attention catered to at-risk youth is demanding attention. Recent media has begun highlighting this demand, yet the concept of a school-based health clinic remains perplexing to most people. A narrowly defined schema of primary school does not always jive with common medical experience. As an AmeriCorps member, I am committed to spreading awareness about The Health Center and the unique resources created by implementing school-based health in the Walla Walla community.

The next day, I met with the father who had his doubts about The Health Center. I explained to him what The Health Center was, what we do and what we would not do. I introduced him to our volunteer doctors who reassured him that they were not trying to replace his son’s primary care provider. Then, I prepared to be halted by a stubborn opinion and old-fashioned ideas. Instead, the father laughed and said, “This is great! What a wonderful idea.” We shook hands, and he left after filling out a parent permission packet for his son to use our clinic. On his way out the door, however, he stopped, turned back to me and said, “Thanks for your help. This school is very special, but you guys have made it even better.”

Why The Health Center Is So Necessary