Connecting School, Health and Community in Dearborn, Michigan

On August 25, three days before the start of the 2023 school year, the parking lot of the Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn, Michigan was packed. The school sits across from a massive steel plant, but the beauty of the mural near the school entrance is impossible to ignore. The painting, called “Blooming Possibilities,” was designed by a group of Dearborn students and features a smiling woman adjusting a young girl’s hijab—a nod to the city’s large and thriving Arab American community. Inside, dozens of local families lined the halls waiting to attend a Back-to-School Health Clinic hosted by C-ASSIST, a non-profit that focuses on providing free healthcare and other services to uninsured and medically underserved communities, including refugees and immigrants.  

Located just west of Detroit, Dearborn is an industrial hub that attracts immigrants from around the world to work at Ford Motor Company and other manufacturing plants. In the neighborhood of Salina, many residents are recent refugees from Yemen, having fled a brutal civil war. School supplies and health-related costs including immunizations, health appraisals and sports physicals can be a significant financial strain for these families. 

“A lot of these parents might be struggling at the last minute to make an appointment with a pediatrician, or some of them might not even be insured,” said Zeina Berry, PharmD, chief operating officer of C-ASSIST and a longtime resident of Dearborn. 

As the doors to the school gymnasium opened, nearly 250 people flooded inside. Stations were set up throughout the room for doctors, nurses and medical students to provide free physicals, wellness checks and immunizations. Many students arrived with their parents or extended family members, and C-ASSIST volunteers were quick to encourage everyone to take full advantage of these essential health services.  

“We are taking this family-oriented approach whenever we have events in the schools. Yes, we are there for the child, but the goal is to also be able to offer and tailor the services to both the child and the parent,” Berry said. “That is the nice thing about this community; it’s very close. One house might have multiple generations living together, and you bring in the whole family.” 

C-ASSIST started its health outreach in 2016 with a focus on mental health and addiction resources and care. Today, in addition to mobile health events like the one in Salina, C-ASSIST has its own local health clinic office providing free primary care for uninsured patients. Over the past three years, the organization has also been working to increase vaccine confidence in the community, which has presented challenges, especially among newly arrived families. 

“The refugees and immigrants are coming from war torn countries,” Berry said. “They definitely distrust the government and have a lot of concerns and fears, and then they’re now part of a new community with its own set of issues and problems with access to health care.” 

In Salina, bilingual C-ASSIST volunteers and medical students addressed these fears by welcoming families at the door and helping guide them through the check-in process in their first language. With support from the CDC Foundation, the organization provided COVID-19 and flu vaccine information in multiple languages, and a physician was there to answer questions about vaccines in English and Arabic. The organization included vaccine information and access alongside other routine health services to emphasize that immunization is an important part of preventative care, in addition to its critical role in protecting community health during public health emergencies.   

Berry believes that providing this kind of health information is essential because many community members, especially those who have fled violence, war and chaos, have limited resources and opportunities to prioritize their health. “From our research, they are not against vaccinations, but their health has had to come second,” Berry said. “There's a lot of education to be offered for these parents and for their kids.” 

As people moved through the school gymnasium to share in the the health resources being offered, a constant hum of conversation filled the room. Parents and kids greeted one another and shared their thoughts, questions and excitement about the school year ahead. The event was a reflection of C-ASSIST's ongoing commitment to serving the needs of all families and creating a more healthy, resilient and connected community in Dearborn. 

This program is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $20,007,444 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.   

Ruth O'Neill headshot
Ruth O’Neill is a senior communications officer for the CDC Foundation’s department of infectious disease programs.