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Everybody Smiles in the Same Language: Gratitude with Charita Olabiyi

Charita Olabiyi
The biggest challenge migrants face is people misunderstanding them. When outsiders see their plight they might ask, ‘Why don’t they just get out?’ But that’s [the life] they know.
Everybody Smiles in the Same Language: Gratitude with Charita Olabiyi

Charita Olabiyi, Director of the Farmworker Health Program and Outreach Manager for Westside Family Healthcare in Delaware, is no stranger to the realities migrant workers face.  For more than 23 years, Olabiyi has worked to improve the lives of this underserved population and has been deeply impacted by their stories. Yet her long history actually begins with her father, who himself was a migrant worker before she was born. Her family's history of migrant work informed her understanding of migrant populations.

“The biggest challenge migrants face is people misunderstanding them,” says Olabiyi.  “When outsiders see their plight they might ask, ‘Why don’t they just get out?’ But that’s [the life] they know.” They suffer hardships, and their work is difficult, but it’s a familiar struggle and it’s one they share with people who understand.  Perhaps uprooting their lives is less difficult when they can rely on a few known realities, even when those realities are ridden with struggle. 


Olabiyi grew up in Preston, Maryland, and after graduating from high school, began working for a Migrant Education Program in Caroline County. She has worked with low income families ever since.  She worked with the Migrant Head Start Program for 9 years in Maryland and for another 3 years in Delaware.  She then began to work at Delmarva Rural Ministries, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Delaware, where she served as the head of the outreach program for eight years.  During her time at Delmarva Rural Ministries, Olabiyi met Gail Stevens, RN, a founding member of Migrant Clinicians Network and one of Olabiyi’s role models.  “The compassion [Stevens] had for migrants was contagious.  I always looked up to her. If I were a patient, I’d want her in my corner,” said Olabiyi.  Stevens’ ethic and drive for the mission helped spur Olabiyi further along in her career in migrant health.  


In 2011, Olabiyi began in her current position as the Director of the Farmworker Health Program and Outreach Manager for Westside Family HealthCare. Olabiyi works hard to ensure that the Farmworker Health and Outreach Programs at Westside remove the barriers that exist in providing health care to migrant workers.  Their mobile health unit travels in Kent and Sussex Counties in Delaware to bring these much-needed health care services into the fields.  Olabiyi and her team have put an incredible amount of effort and care into building alliances with Delaware’s growers so that they can access and care for the farmworkers who spend their summer and fall seasons picking strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, corn, apples, potatoes and watermelons.  The outreach team also utilizes a small passenger van to bring patients back to the health center, should they need additional services.  During the farmworker season, Westside’s Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Outreach Team often stays late at night and keep the doors of Westside’s mobile health unit open for migrants who are seeking care after their sometimes 12-hour shift.  

Recently, Olabiyi and the outreach team met a Haitian migrant farmworker who was so sick that he struggled to work, yet his condition didn’t keep him from going out into the fields. His friend and fellow farmworker who had migrated with him worked alongside the sick man to help ensure he would still earn his wages.  Eventually, the man’s condition got to the point where he could no longer sleep or eat.  Westside’s Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Team transported him to the health center, from which he was admitted to a local hospital.  His case manager from Westside stood by his side and translated from English to Creole while he endured his procedures in the hospital. The man credits Westside for saving his life.  To this day, he regularly calls Westside to thank them. 

Olabiyi is proud of her outreach program for the many patients with which it interfaces.  Olabiyi highlights Westside’s yearly hygiene kit for farmworkers as an example of a ‘win-win’ outreach program.  Growers understand that their workers’ hygiene plays a part in food safety and thus gratefully support the hygiene kit. Farmworkers are eager to see what the outreach team is giving away. The outreach team then uses this opportunity to engage with and educate the farmworkers about Westside’s services.


“There will always be a need for education; knowledge is power,” says Olabiyi.  She believes that the foundation of successful health outcomes is empowering individuals with the knowledge to take care of their own health.  Migrant workers can receive health care services while working in Delaware, but when they move on, what are they left with?  They need to be able to navigate the health care system so they can continue to access the care that they need.  Educating their patients on how to continue maintaining good health is important not only for the clinicians at Westside, but in our health care system in general. 


The summer months bring long and tiring work days, both for the farmworkers and for the outreach team at Westside, but, “at the end of the day, when someone who was sick smiles at you, it makes you feel like you did the right thing,” says Olabiyi.  “They appreciate what you did to make a difference in their life,” and Olabiyi feels that gratitude, even if she doesn’t speak the same language as the farmworker.  Olabiyi feels the impact and the gratification of making a difference in someone’s health, because everyone smiles in the same language.

30 CLINICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE is a project celebrating Migrant Clinicians Network's 30th anniversary through the life stories of 30 clinicians making a difference in migrant health. Learn more about Migrant Clinicians Network.


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