Tekla Sanders fairly shone on the sunny day when we met for lunch, her glossy curls framing her expressive eyes and wide smile. At 27, she still considers herself a newly-wed after 18 months of marriage, and she's expecting her first baby, a boy already named David Caleb, in May. Sanders' mother has 12 siblings, 10 of them girls, so "the fact that we're having a boy is very big news," Sanders said. Her mother wants to see the proof for herself.
A native Jacksonian, Sanders is the director of public services for the Mississippi Institute for Improvement of Geographic Minority Health and Health Disparities, an organization affiliated with the University Medical Center and established by a grant from The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Minority Health. The Institute addresses health disparities for rural, disadvantaged and minority populations in Mississippi. Her position allows Sanders to put her education to work: She holds a bachelors' degree from Southern Miss and a master's degree from Texas Woman's University in Dallas with a double major in health care administration and business administration, earned in 2004.
"Health care is truly a passion of mine," Sanders said. "I truly believe that it's something that we're all entitled to. (Whether you receive) sufficient or adequate health care shouldn't depend on your socio-economic status."
The Institute is the brainchild of Dr. Warren Jones, whose vision wasn't just to bring health care to rural Mississippi, but to design a successful model easily replicated in other rural populations across the U.S. For example, the outreach arm of the Institute, the Health Services Core, works within rural communities to provide care in places where people naturally congregate—churches and schools.
Disparities in health care affect African Americans disproportionately in Mississippi. "Just in the Delta, for example, the average (annual) income is $13,000 (for a family of four)," Sanders said. "When you consider $13,000 to secure a home, to take care of all the responsibilities, to take extra money for health care, there's a problem there. You can't afford it."
When the choice is to eat or see a doctor, there is no choice. Couple that with cheap, unhealthy foods, and Mississippi's poor end up with much higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. One of the Institute's many partners, Tougaloo College, has a program that introduces wellness concepts like healthy eating and exercise, and all the Institute's programs are being offered free to those in need.
"We can make a difference. We have a humongous task before us. It may take biting off a piece at a time, but we'll get there," Sanders said. "We'll get there."