When Tamara Matlock, first lady of St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, was initially approached about attending the First Ladies Health Luncheon in 2014, her interest was peaked. But when she sat at the luncheon and heard the testimonies of the women who had previously hosted the event, she knew that she wanted to bring the health day to her church.
Matlock’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer twice in her lifetime, so she knew the importance of primary health care. “It’s important to set awareness, and to not take things for granted, to continually pass down education throughout our community…because early detection saves lives.”
The First Ladies Health Initiative originally began in Chicago in 2008 when new HIV/AIDS infections were occurring at an alarming rate with 56,000 new cases that year and a new infection happening in America every nine and half minutes. Women made up one fourth of that rate, with Black and Latina women being affected significantly more than other demographics.
Tracey Alston, Executive Director of First Ladies Health Initiative, saw this disparity and was inspired by her grandmother, Lucy Bell, a woman who also was the first lady of her church and actively worked to benefit her community. Alston decided to partner with Walgreens and 13 other first ladies of churches around Chicago to begin the First Ladies Health Day.
The primary goal of that first event was to help the community to know their HIV/AIDS status.
Now, nine years later, thanks in large part to the continued support of Walgreens and Pfizer, a biomedical company who helps to provide the screening kits, the event has grown immensely and so have the list of services provided. The Health Day provides free screening services to both women and men with diverse backgrounds and ages.
The available screenings are for: diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, mammograms. Recently, cholesterol screenings have been added to the selection.
Furthermore, each first lady can tailor their Health Day depending on the needs presented by their community. While Matlock has decided to include cholesterol screening, face painting and healthy food into her church’s Health Day, Sharon Brown, first lady of St. Mark United Methodist Church, has decided to include the usual health screenings presented to the community, flu shots and a special presentation about diabetes by Dr. Herman Morgan.
Brown says she hopes her health day will “get people to think about their health throughout the year, even after their yearly checkup and to reconnect with the community; and make sure that people are doing what they need to do take care of their bodies.”
The overall goal for this year’s program is the same as last year, to surpass 30,000 screenings for people of all ages and backgrounds and to run out of the screening tests.
But bolstering attendance for the Health Day does present challenges for the first ladies. Often the first ladies have to advertise for this program throughout the year, going door to door, posting fliers and billboards in high traffic locations to let residents know about the event well in advance. Even then the lack of transportation and education about why the screenings are necessary for the community can be a barrier for some residents. But Matlock is determined to break those barriers.
“Going door to door, picking people up, going to schools. We know that we can’t get them all, but we really try to target people within our community and even if someone can’t make our Health Day, we try to direct them to another location,” Matlock said.
All of these first ladies’ efforts are not in vain either; because of their intensive advertising, the program typically hits its goal of 30,000 screenings in Chicago. Not only that, but because Chicago has been such a successful event in the past, the Health Day has expanded to different cities, with events occurring in Gary, Ind., Los Angeles and Orange County; cumulatively, these cities managed to screen 115,000 people last year. Moreover, there are plans to include Atlanta in the near future.
Matlock said if residents think that the providing of free, accessible, primary healthcare to their community is important, then they should support the initiative by attending the event.
Matlock added, “We, the first ladies, are successfully here and we put our best foot forward to be a liaison, to encourage people to take care of their bodies…Everyone’s watching Chicago to be the alpha of the group, to continue to keep doing great and be the foundation of the program so that it can continue to be spread across the states”
For a listing of churches hosting Health Day, visit: firstladieshealth.com/participating-churches.php