The basement hall of Covenant Baptist Church in Southeast Washington became an impromptu doctor's office last Saturday when a group of immigrants from India ran a one-day health fair as a community service to their adopted country and to the District's Ward 8.
About 110 residents of Ward 8, one of the poorest sections of the District, received a free medical checkup, including tests for such diseases as sickle-cell anemia, oral cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. Those found to need further treatment were advised to visit their family doctor.
The health fair was run by the Kerala Association of Greater Washington, an organization of about 2,000 families in the metropolitan area who trace their roots back to the state of Kerala in southern India. Most of them have become naturalized U.S. citizens.
"We wanted to be involved in some community service because we are naturalized citizens," said Anthony G. Planthara, a spokesman for the 8-year-old Kerala Association. "We are trying to contribute to this country," he said.
The health fair was sponsored in conjunction with Ward 8 City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark and the United Black Fund, headed by her husband, Calvin Rolark. Council member Rolark said the Kerala Association approached her with the idea of a health fair and she arranged for the use of the church, at 3845 South Capitol St.
Ward 8 is one of most medically understaffed areas of the city. Only 42 of the District's 1,200 active doctors practice in the ward, Rolark said.
Joseph Elam, a Kerala member who teaches journalism at the University of the District of Columbia, said that, at first, "most doctors thought if you come to Southeast, to a black area, you would be gobbled up. But that's not the case."
The Keralites are a traditionally well-educated ethnic group, with many doctors, engineers and teachers among their local members.
"Ireland exports a lot of priests and we export a lot of physicians and engineers," said Planthara. More than half of the organization's members live in Montgomery County.
On Saturday 25 doctors, three dentists and 12 nurses were among about 80 Keralites who participated in the health fair. They had expected between 300 and 500 local residents to take advantage of the services, and blamed the lower turnout on poor publicity and the 70-degree weather that lured people to other activities.
Kerala members said the group plans to hold more health fairs in the area, including ones in Montgomery and Prince George's counties sometime next year.
Calvin Rolark said he was pleased by the Kerala Association's involvement in the community and added, "I hope other ethnic groups would do likewise."