While taking the train to visit family, Kathy Minardi often saw pieces of abandoned train cars on the way. It led her to wonder if those materials could be used for good.
Minardi told her grandson, Kevin Travia, a medical student at East Carolina University.
“The idea was to take one of these abandoned train cars, buses or things she saw on the side of the rails to repurpose it for some of the communities she would either see on the railroad going through rural America or for various purposes that anyone would need,” Travia said.
That idea became the foundation for Railcare Health, a nonprofit organization that operates mobile health clinics in shuttle buses, providing free health care to underserved communities in North Carolina.
Since Travia founded it in 2017, Railcare Health has hosted clinics in buses that travel from town to town and provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, primary care, HIV testing, mental health services and dental care.
Travia said his favorite part is seeing the impact of the organization's work.
“I distinctly remember this patient coming off the bus in tears because we were providing a service that this patient knew was so vital for the community and truly so needed to bring health care to so many people,” he said.
The CEO of Railcare Health, Alekhya Majety, who is a junior at UNC, said she got involved in the organization during her first year.
“During high school, I always tried to work within the homeless community and marginalized communities in general,” she said “I wanted to find a way to expand that in my college experience as well, so that’s why I wanted to get more involved.”
Railcare Health has a focus on serving communities that experience health inequities, including migrant farm workers and rural communities. Many of these communities have seen several hospital closures over the last decade. Eleven rural hospitals in North Carolina have closed since 2005, according to data from the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.
For Majety, the most impactful experience has been helping to provide primary care to North Carolina migrant workers, including testing blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
“This was a really great opportunity because it felt like we were actually able to help these people and give them some reassurance versus fear that they might be in trouble but have nowhere to go,” she said.
During the pandemic, Majety said Railcare Health also provided testing and COVID-19 vaccines to migrant workers.
“These communities are really susceptible to COVID, and they are often not really provided any resources to help keep them safe,” Majety said. “So, our goal was to try and educate them, test them and try to limit the amount of exposure people were getting.”
Railcare Health has two branches, one in Chapel Hill and the other in Greenville. Majety said one of Railcare Health’s goals for this year is to expand the Greenville Branch.
“This is a new branch, started about a year ago, because we noticed we were having some trouble reaching eastern North Carolina,” she said. “Now that we have a new branch, we are hoping to provide more care to people because we have two locations that are able to travel a couple hours from those areas.”
Travia said another one of Railcare Health’s goals for this year is to expand its dental care services.
“Something that can be easily forgotten when we think about health care and rural America is dental care,” Travia said. “A lot of these communities do not have access to any dentists at all, so one of the new goals for this coming year is to try and expand the dental reach.”
William Munn, a senior policy analyst for the Health Advocacy Project, said Railcare Health has been helpful in addressing a lack of hospitals in the eastern part of North Carolina.
“Hats off to what Railcare is doing," he said. "I hope that initiatives like that are able to get funded and get more support, particularly from state and local governments."
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