Healthcare Network working to replace $1.2M in funding canceled by Collier County commissioners

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An organization that helps thousands of migrant farm workers keeps moving forward after a lot of money was ripped away is working to find a way to replace that funding.

The Healthcare Network in Immokalee was set to get more than $1 million before Collier County commissioners voted unanimously to end their federal grant.

Two Collier commissioners defended their vote, while three others refused to speak to WINK News.

The federal grant is designed to educate migrant workers about their health. The nonprofit is now working to make up for the loss.

The grant was scrapped after Beth Sherman and others demanded that commissioners protect people from the Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 Extra Mile Migrant Farmworker Grant Program.

Anthony Thomas, of Collier County, said, without evidence, that the program pressures people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’m asking you today, send this blood money back in entirety,” Thomas said.

The commissioners listened and decided to send back the $167,000 they had already spent and cancel the remainder of the program.

The nonprofit Healthcare Network won’t get a $1.2 million grant, which jeopardizes its six-member outreach team.

That team goes into vulnerable communities to provide migrant farmworkers with what they call critical health information, not just the vaccine, but also flu shots, diabetes, and heart disease.

Right now, the commissioners have no plan to ensure these communities don’t suffer due to their votes.

“I’m exploring the philanthropic aspect of having support getting to those folks,” said Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel.

Commissioner Rick LoCastro said: “I’m sure the CEO of Healthcare Network now is ginning up a very aggressive campaign because he does have more options at his disposal.”

Jean-Paul Roggiero, director of community outreach for Healthcare Network, said his work in Immokalee is not a job but a calling.

“It gives me great joy to actually close the loop that is educating folks out in the community that is providing them with transportation, translation services, and providing those much-needed resources for folks who don’t truly have access to it,” said Roggiero.

Roggiero and his five teammates are on the ground daily, connecting with the community and building trust. Then, the Collier county commissioners suddenly and without warning decided to reject the grant from the CDC to educate migrant farmworkers.

“[It’s] disappointing given the fact that we work in the most underserved communities throughout Collier County,” Roggiero said.

Healthcare Network’s CEO, Jamie Ulmer, said Roggiero and his team are going nowhere, despite the fact the Collier County commissioners do not have a backup plan to serve the migrant workers.

“We’re going to figure out a way to be able to fund them to continue their mission to create access for these folks who normally would not have that,” said Ulmer.

Healthcare Network still has some money in the bank from the American Rescue Plan, the president’s 2021 COVID-19 stimulus initiative. At the same time, Ulmer will get busy applying for new grants and rely on the people of Collier County’s generosity.

“As long as we’re creating health care access, providing education to a multicultural community, and using these workers to go door to door to help. Why wouldn’t you not fund it?” Ulmer said.

“So yes, it is unfortunate that this has transpired. But we are a mission-driven organization. As such, we truly believe in our mission,” said Roggiero.

They are banking on the people who share their mission to step up.

The Collier County commissioners didn’t decide to remove the funding alone. The Collier Health Freedom Alliance is a small but powerful group and is a sub-committee of the Collier County Republican Party.

“It’s the people individually in our group that has been speaking out for over a year,” said Carol Dipaolo, Collier Health Freedom Alliance chair.

They spoke out to the Collier County commissioners about COVID-19 and the vaccine. Most recently, the Extra Mile Migrant Farmworker Grant from the CDC. On Valentine’s Day, the commissioners rejected the money.

“We will take a situation and see how we can protect our constituents and the people in our community in order for all of us to have better health and freedom of choice when it comes to health and medical situations,” Dipaolo said.

Alliance adviser Karen Kingston agreed to join the conversation via zoom. She played a big role in that valentines day meeting. “Commissioner Chris Hall had the courage to fight to have me speak in front of the five commissioners and 200 residents on February 14th,” said Kingston.

The Collier Health Freedom Alliance convinced the Collier commissioners the COVID-19 vaccine information handed out to the migrant farmworkers was one-sided, unfair, and untrue.

“There was no fair balance in any of these materials. It was all about how great the vaccines were,” Kingston said.

“That is dangerous because how can somebody make a decision and choose when the facts are not laid out across the table on both sides,” said Dipaolo.

The information provided to the farmworkers is public record, and WINK News investigative reporter Kellie Miller sorted through it. Some documents discuss potential side effects of the vaccine, including myocarditis, vomiting, and dizziness, but the alliance members don’t believe it was enough.

“This funding was removed because of the detrimental damage that they were doing by coercing these people to take these injections. So do I regret that the money was taken? Not at all,” said Dipaolo.

The commissioners admit they have no plan right now on how to continue the migrant outreach program.

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