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MTSU Students Stage April 17 Health Fair for Underserved Refugees


A new MTSU student organization is planning a second health fair for refugees in need of nutritional education and assistance.

Advocates for Community Engagement, or ACE, will stage the fair with help from Community Servants, a nonprofit, faith-based organization, from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, April 17, at 124 Jeb Stuart Drive in the Wherry Housing District in Smyrna.

Many of the 400 Nashville-area refugees of an ethnic sect called the Karen live in Wherry Housing. The Karen have fled southern and southeastern Myanmar in droves for years because of what they claim to be ethnic cleansing on the part of the government. The U.S. State Department has accused the ruling Myanmar regime of oppressing the Karen for their religious beliefs.

“These particular refugees have had little access to education,” said Denise Bates, an associate professor in MTSU’s Department of Health and Human Performance. “So many of them came into the U.S. with no skills and no education, and they don’t speak English.”  

The agencies slated to provide services at the April 17 health fair include the St. Thomas Mobile Health Clinic, Rutherford County Health Department, Nashville International Center for Empowerment, Interfaith Dental Clinic and Smyrna Fire Department.

Under Bates’ guidance, the students arranged for numerous agencies to provide literature and resources at a fair in October 2014.

More than 350 people attended that fair with more than 225 getting free flu shots, said Bates.

The upcoming fair will feature a book van, nutrition classes, dance classes, free bottled water from Sam’s Club, games for children and a drawing for a 35-pound bag of rice.

The Karen and other refugees frequently resort to cheap, processed fast food because they can’t afford fruits and vegetables, Bates said.

“They can’t even afford to eat like they ate in their own countries because typically they grew their own foods or the (refugee) camps would grow foods that were a little more nutritious,” said Bates.

“When I realized how greatly the Karen refugees needed community support, I knew I wanted to try and enhance their quality of life by connecting them with local and valuable resources,” said Brittnie Neal, a senior double major in health education and nursing from Murfreesboro and project director for ACE.

Bates said this kind of service learning enables students to gain real-world experience that expands their worldview.

“It’s a win-win because the kids are learning how to apply what they’re learning in the classroom out in the field, and then the community benefits from that,” said Bates.