One decade old, Puentes de Salud is ‘a labor of love’

As a Mexican, Steven Cabrera says he’s very aware that many individuals who share his culture have a difficult time accessing health care in Philadelphia because of issues like immigration, poverty, or both. As a Penn Nursing student, he’s collaborating with physicians to provide high-quality, Latino-friendly care for those populations.

He’s able to do so through Puentes de Salud—Spanish for “bridges of health”—a nonprofit organization now celebrating its 10th year. Puentes is spearheaded by Penn health care professionals who aim to promote health and wellness among South Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latino immigrant population through high-quality care, innovative educational programs, and community building.

“Puentes is really a center based on aiding the community through medicine,” says Cabrera, a Penn senior who has been working with Puentes since his freshman year.

At Puentes’ clinical space, located at 1840 South St., patients can receive full-service care—everything from obstetrics and gynecology to treatment of diabetes, a condition prevalent among South Philadelphia’s Latino population—at a low cost, in their native language, without fear.

“It has that nostalgic, home feeling for many of the patients,” Cabrera says. “All of the care is done in Spanish. Sometimes for our patients, language can be such a big barrier, and something that’s good can be misconstrued as bad. But at Puentes, they feel like they have a voice, and they know their voice can be heard.”

Steven Larson, co-founder and executive director of Puentes, says creating a culture of comfort and access was one of the main goals in establishing the organization back in 2003. The foundation of Puentes, Larson adds, rests on the belief that community health is not the sole domain of health care providers.

“We can take care of the full spectrum of a disease,” says Larson, who also serves as the assistant dean for Global Health Programs and an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “But we focus a lot of our work not just on the delivery of health care, but also tremendous amounts on empowerment and education.”

He says that in addition to top-notch medical care, Puentes also works in partnership with many community organizations, public schools, governmental institutions, and universities like Penn to provide after-school programming and research, all aimed to improve the adverse economic and social conditions that threaten the health of the Latino community.

“Because of the fact that people see Puentes is for the community, by the community, I think they are really receptive to that and open to it,” Cabrera says.

But gaining the trust of the Latino population was one of the biggest hurdles for Larson and his team in getting Puentes off the ground.

For 13 years before founding Puentes, Larson had been working with a similar organization in Kennett Square, Pa., where the Latino population had grown in response to the influx of mushroom farming in the area. He noticed the demographic shift in the late 1990s in Mexican migration from rural to urban areas, and wanted to address the same issues in Philadelphia’s communities.

“In 2003, you had this undocumented population, 9/11 had just occurred, and there was this heightened sense of security,” Larson says. “It was a tough road for [the Latino population.] We struggled with simply getting through to say, ‘Hey, we’re doctors, and we want to take care of you.’”

Through partnerships with many community groups and the endorsement of the local churches, Puentes gained momentum. Today, Puentes sees as many as 30 patients per day—half of them returning to treat chronic conditions, and half new patients—and the organization is poised to open a new, full-time space at 17th and South streets.

“Something as grounded as a volunteer clinic helps you see what you should be striving for as a health care professional,” says Cabrera, who is slated to graduate in 2014. “There are a lot of role models I look up to in these clinics, and for them to acknowledge me, a student, as a fellow health care provider with real experience at Puentes, has truly been amazing.”

Larson says inspiring students to pursue health care careers in areas of need has been part of the goal all along.

“As educators, we’re responsible for guiding the next generation of leaders, and Puentes, for us, is also about making this generation of students get through to their next step with their values intact. Puentes is truly a labor of love.”

Puentes de salud