Cruiser Provides COVID-19 Care to Our Community.

Zeleka Benton, manager of community services in the greater Charlotte market, oversees the Novant Health Community Care Cruiser, a 40-foot mobile unit that provides on-site clinical care and support services to uninsured and underinsured patients.

Benton says her initial work as a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES) led her to develop a true passion for public health. In fact, her duties as an educator took her into many Charlotte area ZIP codes where the residents had exceptionally poor outcomes with diabetes. She realized that situation was unlikely to change without a more systematic outreach effort to help patients manage their chronic conditions.

Benton’s aspiration to personally be part of such an effort became a reality in March 2021. At that time, she was appointed to lead a team as manager of community services in the greater Charlotte market. In this role she oversees the Novant Health Community Care Cruiser, a 40 foot mobile unit that provides on-site clinical care and support services to uninsured and underinsured patients. The cruiser now makes regular stops in many of those same ZIP codes where Benton previously worked as an educator.

As 2021 got underway, the cruiser was beginning its 14th year of operations. Its mission of service to underprivileged neighborhoods did not change during those 14 years. However, the mission assumed much greater urgency as the effects of the pandemic continued to spread.

It was quickly apparent, for example, that Charlotte’s minority communities were suffering in disproportionate numbers. The cruiser, in response, took on a front-line role in the effort to ensure greater equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, free cloth masks, educational information and timely medical referrals.

The importance of another crucial mission was underscored by the pandemic: the need to protect children from conventional childhood diseases.

Focusing on communities where vaccination rates were abnormally low, the cruiser’s care team helped thousands of children to receive protection from such ongoing threats such as polio, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, chickenpox and whooping cough. The team also partnered with volunteer Novant Health Medical Group providers and residents community centers, clinics, schools and public health teams to provide no health assessments at no charge.

Another key activity was addressing environmental factors commonly referred to as “the social determinants of health.” These include things like food, housing, financial stability and ready access to a primary care physician.  In order to address that need, Patricia Coleman, a social worker who is part of the cruiser team, provided more than 600 referrals, many for food assistance from Loaves & Fishes.

Looking back on 2021, Benton is pleased her team provided such a valuable mix of services to people in underserved communities. She praises the resiliency of her colleagues, who had to operate in an environment fraught with COVID-related hazards. She’s also grateful to those whose financial contributions to the Novant Health Foundation helped to cover the cruiser’s operational costs.

Given the scale of needs that still exist, she says her dream would be to have a whole fleet of cruisers. Until that happens, however, she’s proud to be part of the hospital’s longstanding commitment to improving access. She compares the Community Care Cruiser to the little engine that could. “We’re just one 40-foot mobile unit,” she says, “but we’re cruising along doing the very best we can to make a difference for people in need.”

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