Media Strategist / Senior Writer
Randy Melton slowly pulled his fire engine red Camaro into the line of vehicles at Eason’s Crossroads Ballpark in Gates County. It was a gorgeous North Carolina morning; the sun was shining brightly, and blue sky went on forever. A red US Marine tag on the front of Melton’s car glistened in the sunshine.
“Twenty-three years,” the retired Marine proudly said of his service, which took him as far away as Okinawa and as nearby as Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC. But on this day, Melton didn’t have to travel far. He was in his community, at the ballpark to get his COVID-19 vaccine. He was excited about it.
Melton said getting the vaccine was the right decision for him, and he encourages others to get theirs too. “Anything to get people motivated to get the shot,” he said, giving a thumbs up.
Providing life-saving vaccines to underserved communities
Melton was among dozens of people who came to the ballpark on June 24 as part of a statewide COVID-19 vaccine initiative Disability Rights NC (DRNC) launched called Project ACCESS (All Communities Count Equitably for Safety and Support). With financial support from the US Administration on Community Living, the NC Council on Developmental Disabilities and the UNC Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, the initiative collaborates with local partners to boost access to vaccines in communities with low vaccination rates, with a particular focus on equity.
“We want to make sure that equity is baked into all aspects of vaccine distribution so that underserved and marginalized communities are able to access the vaccines and accurate information about them,” said Iris Green, DRNC’s director of constituent services.
Pastor Robert Jordan of First Baptist Roduco Missionary Baptist Church in Gates County helped kick off the event with an enthusiastic appearance in a video encouraging vaccinations, highlighting the freedoms vaccines provide such as being able to vacation and go out to eat without worry. “Come out and get vaccinated so we can have a good time together,” he urged.
“Yes,” echoed Green. “Every person who chooses to get vaccinated brings us all a step closer to moving past the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A woman with an accessible parking placard on her rearview mirror drove up to register and Green ran over to greet her. Though she did not want her name used, she told us she thought a long time before she made her decision to come to the event. She’s on dialysis and has had a brain tumor. “My sister has been on me, she wanted me to come and get it,” she said.
Still, she wasn’t sure. “I’ve been praying about it. Then I called my doctor this morning and she said ‘Yes, you should get the vaccine because you are one who really needs it.’” She decided to attend the vaccination event.
For DRNC advocate Curtis Hill, who is leading Project ACCESS with Green, seeing people come out to get the vaccines is motivating. “We are building synergy around the vaccines, the urgency of getting the vaccines. Because it’s not over. The pandemic is not over.”
“We can put an end to COVID-19”
Green and Hill spearheaded Gates County partnerships with Albemarle Regional Health Services, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center, Albemarle Commission Area Agency on Aging, Gateway Community Health Center, the Gates County Lions Club, and the Gates County Inter-Regional Transportation System (GITS) to make the event a success.
“It is impossible to deliver effective community healthcare without great partners,” said Dr. Donald Bowling, chief medical officer for Sentara Albemarle Medical Center. “I appreciate the collaboration between Disability Rights NC, Albemarle Regional Health systems, the Community Cares Clinic, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center, and numerous other local and state organizations that have come together to improve the health of people in Northeastern North Carolina. It is only by working together that we can put an end to COVID-19.”
Bowling and Hill did a live radio interview during the event, broadcast by Elizabeth City State University’s radio station, WRVS FM. The station’s program director, Clay Mercer, conduced the interview, one of 4 live interviews broadcast during the two-hour event.
Mercer zoned in on Bowling and Hill, asking questions designed to give pertinent, timely information to his listeners and draw them to the event. “I’ve had family members pass away from this,” Mercer said. “It’s important to me that everyone, especially African Americans, come out and get the shot. It’s safe. It’s important.”
Working to address vaccine hesitancy
It was an event with significant implications, and it was also uplifting. DRNC conducted phone-banking before the event, including a conversation with a woman who was extremely hesitant to get vaccinated. And because of that personal outreach and conversation, she came to the vaccine drive.
Gates County is located in the northeast area of the state and is on the Virginia border. It has a total population of just over 11,500. Only 30 percent are fully vaccinated. At least 25 people received their choice of the 3 available vaccines during the event. People also had the opportunity to arrange to receive the vaccine at their own homes.
Pastor Claude Odom of New Middle Swamp Missionary Baptist Church was there and heartened to see people coming in to get their shots. He said he and Pastor Jordan are actively working to get people vaccinated.
“Robert and I are encouraging everybody, every Sunday, to get the shot,” he said. “We want to calm their spirits so they will come out and get the shot and put it behind them.”
For Odom, the shot brought back a quality of life for him and his family. He didn’t see his grandchildren for more than a year. “We were living under an umbrella of fear,” he said.
Bowling understands that fear. “COVID is still present in our region of North Carolina and while the number of cases have decreased recently it is still causing people to be hospitalized and even die. If you are not yet immunized, it is important that you become immunized, to protect yourself and your family from this deadly disease.”
That’s why Bryant Stokely of Elizabeth City got his shot. “It’s important to be safe,” he said.
More than just a vaccine drive
As Mercer played upbeat music during the event, volunteers gave away delicious lunches provided by local caterer Tempting Treats and Gifts. The editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Cal Bryant, was there snapping pictures and interviewing people. While community partners delivered much-needed vaccination services and made connections with underserved populations, event participants enjoyed a combination of free food and prizes, including eight gift cards and a grand prize laptop giveaway.
“This was about bringing the Gates County community together,” Hill said. “We just facilitated bringing together what they already have. It wasn’t about DRNC, it was about them, their community. All we did was bring the food, some information, publicity, and the excitement. But they brought the resources and the conversation. It’s really about empowering your neighbor.”