Serving the home health, home care and hospice industry since 1999.

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by Tim Rowan, Editor

Thelma Washington

They call her "The Mayor of Stuart." There is, in fact, an elected mayor of Stuart, Florida, but residents of Thelma Washington's Atlantic coastal community bestowed the unofficial title on her. She told us in a recent interview she got the nickname because, "they come to me with a problem and I find someone to get it done. Most people know I'm allergic to 'no.'"

We heard about Ms. Washington because one of the problems she tackled was her largely minority community's low COVID-19 vaccination rate. When she heard about the federal grant administered by the National Minority Health Association, a program that pays people to get a COVID shot and pays the home care worker who encourages them, she leapt into action, quickly getting permission for a non-home care worker to participate. She got 50 people vaccinated on her first day in the program, earning $1,250 for herself and $2,500 for them.

The NMHA program, Flex for Checks, sets aside cash rewards for home care workers arranging each shot, additional rewards for their employers, and matching rewards for the person receiving the shot. "The Mayor" has arranged 500 shots so far and is due $12,500. Her friends and neighbors getting vaccinated will be rewarded $50 per shot. "But I'm not done yet," she laughed. "Some of those are first doses of Pfizer or Moderna, so a lot of those people will be back in a few weeks for their second shot."

Mayor? Or Human Hurricane?

Ms. Washington is the director of a not-for-profit, early childhood education center in Stuart, supported by United Way and an income-based tuition schedule. After hearing about Flex for Checks through a friend who works for a local home care agency, she called and got permission to join the effort. Immediately, she began to talk to the parents of children in her school. Then she got some donations and organized community dinners, where these often low-income parents could get a shot and a free meal...and listen to myth-busting facts about COVID-19 and its various vaccinations. "Too young to be vaccinated? That's OK. If Mom or Dad gets a shot, the young ones get to eat for free too."

Next, as soon as the vaccine became available for children 12 and above, she contacted middle school principals across Martin county, asking to bring county public health nurses to administer shots right in their buildings.

"You know about our governor," she lowered her voice to a whisper. "The school principals were reluctant to cross him by appearing to sponsor vaccination efforts, so they all said, 'You can't some in but you can hold your ad hoc clinics on the sidewalk in front of our school.' I accepted that compromise because at least all the families knew where their junior high school was and could get there easily."

To date, she added, her participation in Flex for Checks has held vaccine clinics at every elementary and middle school in Martin County.

More Than 'The Vaccine Lady'

Arranging 500 COVID vaccinations is not the only way 'The Mayor' serves Stuart and surrounding Martin County towns. Her school for low-income families is open year-round. "When parents are working and older siblings would otherwise be home alone all summer, without access to the Internet and just wandering around town, sometimes getting into trouble, I let them come to my school with their little brothers and sisters."

She offers educational programs on parenting and money management for parents as well. "Some of these people have five or six children but have never been educated themselves," she explained. "If you're going to educate kids, you have to send them home to educated parents."

Every fall, Ms. Washington holds a "back to school bash," where she can meet new parents and let them know what is expected of them. "That's when we found out how many parents and older siblings were not vaccinated" she told us. "We also saw that some kids come to school on the first day not dressed properly. So I got some friends together and we bought 300 collared shirts for them. The good part about living in a small town for so long, I know everybody. I have everybody's cell number."

No, She is Not Finished Yet

Next month, she will go even bigger. On October 16, Ms. Washington will initiate her most ambitious effort yet, "Operation Vaccinate Treasure Coast." There will be three vaccination sites in Martin and two adjacent counties. Local radio and TV stations will broadcast live from all three locations, announcing frequent shot counts to foster competition, pitting one site against another. Nurses will also talk to people about feeding their kids healthy food so they do not raise another generation of diabetics. "We have lots of people with diabetes and high blood pressure here," she lamented.

We will check in with Thelma Washington toward the end of the six-month HRSA grant to see how many Floridians she got vaccinated, and how much of the grant money she earned. One last thing. It may come as no surprise that she is not keeping the money for herself, but sharing it with staff at her community dinners and vaccination sites and putting the rest back into her school.

Learn more about Thelma Washington's work on two Facebook pages, her own and the page for Gertrude Walden Child Care Center.

©2021 by Rowan Consulting Associates, Inc., Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Home Care Technology: The Rowan Report. One copy may be printed for personal use; further reproduction by permission only.