By Nancy DeVille | Photo • David Meza
Meet Andres Abarra. As a community health worker for LifeLong Medical Care, Abarra spends a lot of time in Richmond neighborhoods helping low-income residents access social and health services. He believes access to quality health care is crucial for Richmond residents.
But he’s also just as passionate about helping the formerly incarcerated find the resources they need to readjust to society. He understands their struggle because 11 years ago he was in their shoes: trying to find employment, longing to reconnect with family members and needing health care after years of incarceration.
Abarra, 63, works with the Safe Return Project and takes great pride in his role advocating for the Richmond City Council to pass an ordinance to remove the criminal history question from job applications.
Richmond Pulse recently interviewed Abarra about his work in the Richmond community.
RP: You’re on the front lines helping Richmond residents get access to the medical and social services they need. What are some of the challenges residents face?
AA: It’s hard to get medical services if you don’t have some form of insurance. But here at LifeLong, [a community health care center], we see you if you have insurance or not. We do charge you on a sliding scale but it’s geared toward low-income people. I’m in Richmond every day and for me it’s very important to get that message out.
Unfortunately, in the society that we live in, it’s a privilege to have medical care but it should be a right. It’s so unfair for people to get sick or have an accident and they can’t be seen by a doctor. You can really judge the health of the community by how healthy the people are in that community.
I think it’s really sad that people cannot have access to medical care at all times. That’s why I’m so gung-ho about it. I don’t think it should matter if you’re a documented citizen or undocumented. If you get sick or break a leg, you should be seen.
A lot of undocumented people think if they come here to Lifelong, that we’re tied to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], but we’re not. All we want to do is help you or your children see a doctor. We don’t turn their name in. We just want people to come here and feel comfortable. There are [also] programs like Contra Costa Cares, which is health care for those who are undocumented.
RP: Why are you so passionate about health care advocacy?
AA: For a lot of years, I didn’t have any medical care. At one time I registered for Medi-Cal while I was trying to get on my feet. But when I got a part-time job, they wanted me to pay an $800 deductible and then anything after that, they would pick up. At the time, I was making $9 an hour. Where would I get $800? You want me to go to work, but it’s like there’s a Catch-22. There were times when I was sick and wanted to go get checked out, but I couldn’t afford it.
And now I see when that happens to people who are formerly incarcerated. Some go back to that old way of life and the next thing you know, they’re caught up again.
If I meet somebody that needs Covered California, I take them directly to one of our counselors and they can take care of them right then.
RP: What do you like about working in Richmond?
AA: Richmond is where I got my help, so I’m giving back. I wouldn’t have the job I’m in or the car I have, if it wasn’t for the people in Richmond. I just can’t take without giving back.
Richmond has problems just like any other city, but most of the people are really great. I travel to a lot of neighborhoods, Lower South, Parchester Village, North Richmond, Santa Fe, Coronado, and they all have great people.
I live in Vallejo, but my heart is in Richmond and it’s always going to be there.
RP: What advice do you have for the formerly incarcerated in Richmond?
AA: They should call Safe Return or stop by the new Reentry Success Center on Macdonald Avenue. They should use their resources and don’t give up. They can’t use any excuses not to go and get the help they need. But most of all, they need to be patient. Don’t let your pride get in the way. Ask people for help.
I never imagined I would have a job like this. When I got out, I knew I wanted to get a job but this is beyond my wildest imagination. I am so blessed to be in the position that I’m in, not only to help people that are coming home, but also to help people, period, that need help. I want people to know that there are people and organizations in Richmond that really want to help you.