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My five-month affiliate tour kicked off on Jan. 9 with a meaningful and inspiring trip to Ohio, where the great Iris E. Harvey, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, kindly showed me her state, introduced me to her staff, and spoke frankly with me about what issues we urgently need to address. Iris and I also spoke with Columbus Underground, Cleveland.com, and Ideas Sunday about the work Planned Parenthood is doing on the national, state, and local levels to provide, protect, and expand care.

Between Columbus and Cleveland, I had the opportunity to meet with about 150 of PPGOH’s most passionate and committed donors. I relayed my gratitude to them, for helping us keep our doors open and provide exceptional care day after day.

We convened public health roundtables in both Columbus and Cleveland, gathering some of the state’s most passionate and insightful public health experts, civic leaders, and medical providers to share their insights about what’s working and what’s not in Ohio. This roundtable is something I hope to replicate in all my affiliate visits—it’s imperative that we at PPFA, along with affiliates and our many partners, understand the unique needs of each community and work with them together to get those needs met.

As an immigrant myself, I was heartened to learn about the focus on the needs of immigrant communities in Columbus. The city boasts one of the largest Somali communities in the country, as well as a large population of Bhutanese-Nepali immigrants. The First Lady of the city of Columbus and Senior Director of Community Health Partnerships at OhioHealth, Shannon Ginther, spoke about a mobile health center that began as a way to serve these communities, along with others, no matter their citizenship status or ability to pay. Elected officials also confirmed that they publish health care materials in multiple languages to ensure everyone understands exactly what they need to do to stay healthy.

I then visited Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio’s East Columbus Surgical Center. There, despite incredible challenges, the staff has been providing abortion services five days a week for the past 15 years. The stories the staff shared with me are a testament to their contributions to the communities. Cierra, the site supervisor, told me that she first came to the center as a patient herself, in 2015. After her visit, she wanted to provide the same care that she had been given. “I walked in as a patient and then came back through those doors as an employee a few months later.”

A health care assistant, Shay, had just started working at Planned Parenthood in August. She told me, “I had a terrible experience during my abortion process,” adding, “I just didn’t want another patient to go through what I went through, so I go above and beyond for them. I am a strong advocate for our patients, to make sure they get the care they need.” I hope you are as happy as I am that our patients in Columbus are in such caring, competent hands.

I had the pleasure of meeting administrative staff, as well, who work under the strong leadership of Iris, and to meet those fighting for reproductive rights in the state house - which is a regular occurrence in a state like Ohio, with a hostile state legislature and anti-reproductive health Governor. They shared their concerns about the lack of sexual health education standards in Ohio - the only state without such standards. This means that students in Ohio could be receiving their sexual and reproductive education from anyone - a coach, math teacher, etc.

These are long battles, and much of the staff has been fighting to train community educators and provide youth with evidence-based, non-judgmental information about sex and sexuality. Take Sarah Anway, manager of facilities and security at PPPGOH, who has been working at Planned Parenthood for 26 years. She started as a health assistant, moved into risk and quality assurance, and many years later, continues to serve our patients by maintaining the sort of welcoming environment that allows the team to effectively work and thrive.

After our wonderful time together in Columbus, I traveled with Iris and the Chair of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio’s Board of Directors, Jennifer McNally (pictured below), to Cleveland. During our two hour journey (thanks to Jennifer for driving!), we discussed our “blue sky” visions for Planned Parenthood in Ohio and across the country. I greatly value Iris for her steadfast and kind leadership, and I am grateful to her and Jennifer for serving as my thought partners during our journey.

Our Northeast Ohio public health roundtable featured Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown-area health care providers and community leaders, including several elected officials at the Cleveland public health roundtable. Ohio State Representatives Stephanie Howse, Nickie Antonio, and Emilia Strong Sykes (pictured below with me and Iris) reiterated the importance of standing up in the hostile state legislature to defend reproductive health care as pro-choice and pro-family. Throughout my visit, what struck me as clearly evident was the strength of partnerships between elected officials and public health leaders in addressing the needs of their community. During the roundtable I learned about a great example: Full Term First Birthday. This is an initiative aimed at decreasing infant mortality and premature births in Summit County, where the largest city is Akron. Various organizations, including PPGOH, city and county government, nonprofits, health care agencies and faith-based groups throughout the region are joining together to focusing on ensuring pregnant people deliver babies at full term and that every Akron baby reaches a first birthday. During the Columbus roundtable, I learned of a similar initiative - the city of Columbus launched the “Celebrate One” initiative and assembled an infant mortality task force to address the economic and social problems that contribute to this unacceptably high number.

We wrapped up the trip to Ohio with a visit to the Bedford Heights health center, where I met with staff who support patients in the Cleveland area. I heard from so many wonderful people, including Leah, a community health educator, who spoke about how Planned Parenthood partners with Cleveland Municipal School District to educate over 1,000  students each year. She also shared about the Bedford Heights mobile health program, in partnership with Mom’s First and the City of Cleveland, that brings street level HIV and STI testing and linkage to care across the city of Cleveland — to barber shops, stores, and anywhere else that they can park the team’s converted RV.

I also spoke with Tiffany, who works in education. She told me about the STI testing done in SUD facilities, jails, and detention centers—places wherein people are sorely underserved and their health care needs are not met. I heard from Jessica, a customer contact manager, who leads the call center team at PPGOH. “We make their appointments, answer basic questions, and transfer to our nurse practitioner for medical advice.” Their team is the first line of contact for any patient calling them. They schedule more than 200,000 patients per year, recently launched online appointment scheduling for abortion services, and patients have booked 177,000 appointments online since April 2015. The call center team is there for more than scheduling help—they’re also a vital support system. Jessica recalled speaking with a patient trying to make an appointment, who revealed to her she was calling while hiding in a closet. “We touch every patient that comes through our doors; this is the important work we do,” she said.

In speaking with the affiliate and health center staff, I was reminded of the importance of our work, and the incredible individuals that deliver quality care and education to patients each and every day.

Throughout my visit, I heard a lot about the disparities among maternal and infant mortality in Ohio, and the work happening around the state to address these issues. Iris proudly spoke about PPGOH’s work as part of the Ohio Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative (OIMRI) and PPGOH’s Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies program, a home visiting program that hires trained community care coordinators to serve in their own communities. As Iris put it, this personal touch is “the secret sauce” in making the program effective. The community care coordinators are able to connect to program participants better than others who may have very different backgrounds, and they provide robust risk assessments, connections to WIC programs, and help in contacting a variety of other medical and social services resources, along with sharing important information and education about health, parenting, and more.

The story of Evelyn and Bill really touched me. At 14-years old, Evelyn and Bill had unprotected sex and Evelyn became pregnant. They got married and Evelyn delivered a baby girl. The new family left the hospital without instructions on family planning or access to contraception—they were completely overwhelmed and on their own, only to return eleven months later to deliver a second baby. Unfortunately, Evelyn died during childbirth, and Bill found himself raising two infants alone.

Evelyn and Bill are Iris's grandparents. Their unnecessary struggle and loss inspired her to join the Planned Parenthood family, so she could fight, with everything she had, for the right of all people to access to comprehensive reproductive health care and education. Iris is doing just that. She told me: “Planned Parenthood of Ohio is doing exactly what we were established to do 102 years ago. Every day we are serving our patients.”

In visiting Planned Parenthood Greater Ohio, in speaking with the state’s leading public health professionals, and in sharing moments with our incredible staff, I was reminded of the importance—and the urgency—of our work. To deliver health care, every day, to whoever walks through our doors.

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