Q & A with Sr. Mary Englerth, bringing health care to farmworkers in Pennsylvania

by Soli Salgado

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Her work in health care has taken Maryknoll Sr. Mary Englerth from Peru and Guatemala to Adams County, Pennsylvania, first as a layperson volunteering alongside Maryknollers in Peru after a 1970 earthquake and later joining the congregation and becoming a physician's assistant working with migrants in the United States.

Englerth is the director of the Keystone Farmworker Health Program in Pennsylvania, visiting labor camps multiple times a week to provide health care for migrant farmworkers and their families. Englerth's team brings health clinics to camps in 37 counties where migrant farmworkers and seasonal workers live: Sometimes, two to four men share a room and leave at the end of a picking season; sometimes, they live there more permanently with their families, alternating the fruit they pick seasonally.

Englerth's work was recognized Jan. 22, when she was presented the 2018 Living the Dream Award, given annually to a person who exemplifies the ideals of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by ensuring everyone in a community is treated equally. The YWCA Association of Gettysburg & Adams County and the United Way of Adams County selected Englerth and presented her the award at Gettysburg College's Christ Chapel.

GSR: Why did you choose to get into health care, specifically as a physician's assistant?

Englerth: When I was in Peru, there was just one doctor in the department where I was working for about 45,000 people. So many of the villages where we worked, people had to travel anywhere from four to six hours, if they could even get transportation to a local clinic. There was such a need for health care.

Our main focus was in training the health promoters, but we were providing some amount of care in their own areas. We had a team of nurses when I went to Peru, up to the Altiplano, so I started to work with them to scope the need. There was another physician's assistant also in that area who was a Sister of St. Joseph, and she kept encouraging me to try to do this. Very gratefully, we had a Maryknoll bishop there, and he said if I was able to do this — we were in such a deprived area — the fathers would help pay for the education, which was a great gift.

How do the needs differ in the places you've served?

The need both in Peru and Guatemala was the access to medical care. The distances many times were so great, and that was where we felt the need for training local health promoters.

Here in the States, there is a disparity of health care because many of these men [in the camps] also lack transportation; here in some of our counties, we can provide transportation for them to get them to the clinic. Nurses go out to the camps three nights a week and a clinic here in our Adams County area. Some of our distant counties, like our contracted clinics, some might be three to four hours' travel for them. Also, if they go into a regular clinic, the cost of health care is beyond what they can afford, for sure. And they have no insurance, and many of them of course are not legal, either. All of these factors contribute to lack of care.

What do you mean by "camp"? What are their needs there?

In Adams County/Gettysburg, we have over 61 labor camps. They're like block houses and individual houses where the men live while they're here. They may do their own cooking if they wish, or in some of the larger camps, their growers provide cooks. There's usually two to four men in the room, and they do have showers and maybe a television in a common room. Most of the residences in our area are rather good, but here and there, there's always some below standard. But the men live together in these labor camps. There are some women with children, but very few. Most of them are men.

We have two classes of workers: migrant and seasonal. Migrants are the ones who come into the state to do the picking and leave at the end of the picking season. That's usually June through mid-November, depending on the crops. The seasonal farmworkers who live in the area live all year long and work in the packing houses or pruning the trees and so forth. The seasonal workers have their families here. A lot of the women work in the packing houses, and some work as domestics or laundry.

Does being in religious life affect how you approach your job?

Certainly, you feel that you are treating one of these, "the least of my people," and they come from such hard situations. The greatest gift in a way that we give to them: Here, they have a Caucasian person sitting down, really listening to them, which is a new experience to them, so the care I think they feel and the interest — I think that all comes from our religious charism of seeing God in each person we serve.

I understand that all that work led to your receiving the Martin Luther King award. Congratulations! Tell me how you found out and reacted to the news.

I don't like awards, but this was a very humbling experience for me. The fact that our work was picked out to represent a continuation of Martin Luther King's dream — that was quite an honor. I made it very clear that the award was to our whole staff: our nurses and those who go out to the camps every night to see the patients, the men, during the hot summer months. I thanked our CEO, Joanne Cochran, for accepting the grant to do this.

Here in Adams County, apples and apple products bring in over $500 million to the economy of the county, so without pickers, we don't have the fruit. I wanted to point out in the talk that I gave [when accepting the award] that we're all here in the struggle to make Martin Luther King's dream a reality, and to do this, we have to welcome the stranger, we have to welcome the migrants and welcome the refugees who are fleeing from such harrowing conditions in their own lands and also to care for our victims of domestic violence and the modern-day slavery of human trafficking. In doing this, we know we are caring for "the least of my people," and we're doing it for him.

What was very emotional for me was they had the Morgan State University Choir there — they were just superb — and at the end, they sang a powerful rendition of "We Shall Overcome." Everyone stood and held hands.

For some reason, as they were singing, so many faces came to my mind of people in Peru. We lived in precarious situations in Peru and Guatemala at times, and what struck me in Guatemala was up in the Quiché area, where I was working, I felt like I was walking along the road of martyrs because every now and then you could come to decorated crosses with fresh flowers — the health promoters would tell me these had been execution sites. [I also thought of the] faces of the migrants with some of the stories they have to tell.

At the award ceremony, I couldn't help but think: We have not overcome, and the struggle has to go on. We have so much more to enter into the struggle to make these things.

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]