ROCHESTER — Jeannette Nieves’ bilingual skills were not the only plus when she was hired last summer as the new receptionist for Mercy Outreach Center.
Nieves is the smiling face who greets clients of the center’s 142 Webster Ave. location. And she is someone a growing number of those people can relate to as she is a Puerto Rico native who serves as translator when necessary during appointments.
"She makes them (clients) feel comfortable from the start," said Ellen Lewis, the center’s site manager.
"They feel happier that they have someone willing to help them," agreed Nieves. "On the phone too, many people will ask if I speak Spanish. They prefer if someone speaks in their language."
The Spanish-speaking population at the center, which is a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy, has been growing and totals about 20 percent of its clients, which last year totaled about 800 individuals, added Lewis. Throughout its more than 30-year history, however, a bilingual staff or volunteer has always been available, noted executive director Susan Aiello.
The center’s mission is to meet the health-care needs of uninsured and underserved populations in the Rochester area.
Aiello said that having bilingual staff and volunteers "is allowing Mercy Outreach Center to be really welcoming and helpful to a greater part of our population."
"We’re really eager to respond to more of the need by increasing the number of volunteer providers," she added. "Our slogan right now is, ‘We have the tools if you have the time.’"
Because of the growth of its Latino patient population and an increased demand for health services in general, Mercy Outreach Center is in need of more volunteer medical professionals — particularly doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants — and especially any who are bilingual, Aiello remarked. Volunteers are asked to work two hours a month.
"Two hours … makes a huge impact for us" in the total number of patients for which the center provides services, Aiello added.
Mercy Outreach Center offers an array of services including family medicine, eye health, diabetes education, counseling and advocacy as well as health screenings.
Potential volunteers should know that the center prides itself on its professional environment and up-to-date resources thanks to the generosity of local health and community organizations, Aiello said. Often, equipment is donated, said Lewis, such as the recent donation of an EKG monitor from Finger Lakes Occupational Medicine. The center also obtains grants to purchase equipment, she added.
"We would like the community to know we’re here and providing services," Aiello said. "But our capacity to help more people depends on finding more volunteers."
Lewis said the center is excited that volunteers recently stepped in to offer dental care, which it had been provided in the past. And for more than two decades, Dr. John Ventura has been providing chiropractic care for the center.
Whenever possible, Ventura also brings interns from the New York Chiropractic College, and many of them have been bilingual, which has been a plus for the center because he speaks just a little Spanish, he said.
Language barriers can hamper a doctor’s ability to get a complete medical history from a patient, which is vital to developing a diagnosis and treatment plans, Ventura commented. Whenever he sees a patient who speaks a little English, with his limited Spanish he is able to do his job properly. But when a patient speaks no English, he must bring in a translator if the patient doesn’t bring along an English-speaking family member.
"Very often, the most important aspect of a clinical encounter is the history," he added."Language and cultural differences can miss really important information. … Having someone fluent in the language of the patient is really imperative."
His long history of service at the center — coming in every Tuesday afternoon — stems from the fact that he gets more of out of volunteering once a week than what he gives to his patients, said Ventura, who is part of Rochester Chiropractic Group.
"It’s an opportunity to do the best parts of health care … without all the hassles, to a community that really appreciates what you’re doing," he added.
Linda DeMersman of Rochester is one of those patients who doesn’t know where she would have turned if she had not found Mercy Outreach Center. She was injured at her job as a nurse in 1997 and while battling to receive worker’s compensation, DeMersman found herself without care until a friend mentioned the center.
"I didn’t know about it," she said. "This place is unique. … And they (volunteers) spend a little more time with you."