Kayla Bernstein. Courtesy photo.
Kayla Bernstein. Courtesy photo.

Armed with 200 flu and COVID shots, 300 pumpkins and squashes, and 500 bags stocked with dental products, apples, hand sanitizer and lip balm, Kayla Bernstein is ready to fight for the health of the New River Valley.

The senior biochemistry student from Virginia Tech, in collaboration with the New River Health Department and other local groups, is organizing a first-of-its-kind community health event at the Agape Center in Christiansburg from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m Saturday. 

New River Valley community health event

When: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Agape Center NRV, 1175 Cambria St. N.E., Christiansburg

More information: https://www.facebook.com/agapecenternrv/

Bernstein approached the director of the center, Kim Bowman, with the idea in early September. In a few short weeks, they arranged for nurses, students from the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and other volunteers to help provide flu shots, COVID vaccines, naloxone training, blood pressure tests, general wellness screenings and health education. Bernstein, an aspiring physician, also raised around $1,000 from local donors and friends to sponsor the takeaway bags and pumpkins she will distribute. 

“I just decided I’m about to leave the community probably for good because I’m graduating,” said Bernstein, who has volunteered at the Agape Center food pantry since her freshman year. “So I want to do something different and something bigger than what I’ve been doing, and there just is a really big need for it. I figured a good start would be to have an event where people can get a baseline on their basic health and then also bring in resources to help people hopefully get some kind of health care.” 

A representative from Virginia Poverty Law Center will be on hand to help attendees apply for Medicaid, as a significant number of those who are eligible for the program in the region are not enrolled, according to Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District. This service will be especially beneficial this year, as the Virginia Department of Health did not receive an emergency preparedness grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has allowed it to distribute the flu vaccine free of charge in the past, Bissell said.

The Health Department has only a limited supply of the vaccine that it can distribute free to uninsured residents, so anyone who wants to receive the vaccine and is insured should bring their insurance information.

“If people do have insurance, we say please let us bill your insurance — you won’t be responsible for any of the costs but your insurance will cover the cost,” Bissell said. “That way, the little amount of vaccine that I do have, I can truly use for people who don’t have any resources and don’t have insurance.” 

The food pantry, and the pumpkins that will be distributed. Courtesy of Kayla Bernstein.
The food pantry at the Agape Center, and the pumpkins that will be distributed. Courtesy of Kayla Bernstein.

Bernstein hopes to leave a positive impact on residents’ wellness, but this event may also change the way various agencies interact with one another in the future. While the Health Department and other groups are each working to address a range of issues in community health, an event bringing them all together has never been done, Bissell said. For example, both the Agape Center and the Health Department have held separate vaccination clinics over the years. 

“We have lots of agencies doing great things, but they don’t always communicate and collaborate and don’t always know who’s doing what,” Bissell said. “So if we could start having events where more people are participating, I think we can have a bigger impact on a lot of those social determinants and health outcomes and indicators.”

A critical aspect of the event is awareness. Bissell hopes more people will become aware of all the services that the Health Department offers, from family planning and baby training to immunizations and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Bernstein firmly believes that general health care is a fundamental right, so she is focused on giving members of the community a chance to receive “a baseline of the status of their health.” 

Raised in Charlottesville, Bernstein chose Virginia Tech instead of going down the street to the University of Virginia. From a young age, she knew she wanted to go into the medical field and is on track to fulfill that dream, which is what drew her to the food pantry in the first place. 

“I just really found my place there and I met a lot of people who also work at the pantry, but also clients who pick up food, and it just has always been such a meaningful experience for me,” she said. “Before I went there, I never realized what a difference it makes for people and it makes me really happy to go.”   

After graduating a semester early, she plans to move back to her hometown and apply for a hospital job in a clinical research coordinator position as she takes a year and half off before going to medical school. Though she will be leaving the Agape Center, Bernstein has no desire to stop giving back to her community and is already looking into food pantries and homeless shelters in Charlottesville. 

“She’s a top-notch person, and a standout volunteer,” said Bowman. “She’s always just jumped in wherever the need has been. She knows a lot about every area of the pantry and she’s just one of those that we’re going to really hate to say goodbye to.”

Though Bernstein is departing, her legacy in the New River Valley will only grow as Bissell and Bowman are already formulating how to continue and expand the community health event. 

“I hope that once I leave that something like this will continue,” Bernstein said. “I think that every community should have something like this because health care is a huge barrier for people and having events like this ensures that you are meeting that fundamental right to basic health care.”

Emily Hemphill is a freelance journalist from Elliston. She received a bachelor's degree in political...