Health centers take over local WIC program
Keila Torres, Staff Writer

BRIDGEPORT -- Nicole Colon rarely takes her 3-year-old daughter to the Bridgeport Health Department for her appointments with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

But it's not the wait time or the grown-up talk that Colon worries may affect her little girl.

"This place is so dingy and old," Colon, 28, said of the East Main Street building. "I hate bringing her here to be honest."

That's why Colon was pleased recently to receive a letter in the mail informing her that, starting next year, her WIC appointments would be held at 1020 Fairfield Ave. "Hopefully, the new place is nicer, cleaner and updated," she said.

Colon won't be disappointed.

The city's two community health centers, Optimus Health Care Inc. and Southwest Community Health Center, are now in the process of renovating and furnishing brand-new digs to serve as new WIC offices.

As of Jan. 3, the centers will take control of the local WIC program, ending Bridgeport's more than 20-year run hosting and operating the federally funded initiative that offers nutrition and breastfeeding information and services to pregnant women, infants and children up to age 5.

To qualify for WIC, family incomes must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty income limit. The local program serves Bridgeport, Stratford, Fairfield, Trumbull, Monroe and Easton.

The state Department of Public Health informed Bridgeport last year that the city's Social Services Department was failing to meet the needs of the approximately 6,700 WIC clients. Under the city's leadership, the program was operating with only 12 staff members, six fewer than approved by the state.

All of those employees, whose positions were grant-funded, have now been issued layoff notices and a new group of 19 people are being trained to take over the program.

Optimus and Southwest, which several years ago also took over the city's school-based health centers, will each offer a full site for WIC services, with clients assigned to a site depending on their ZIP code.

Southwest's site on Fairfield Avenue is just a parking lot away from its health center offices at 968 Fairfield Ave., while Optimus' 1450 Barnum Ave. site is a five-minute drive from its East Side facilities and directly next to Quest Diagnostics Laboratory.

"We are hoping that by having two offices it will be less crowded and the majority of the people can be served in their own communities," said Kathy Yacavone, CEO of Southwest.

The program's hours will also be increased to 40 a week, up from 35 hours under the city. Once the new staff gets settled and clients become comfortable with the change, the new offices may also open on Saturdays.

New sites and additional hours should decrease the program's no-show rate, said Ludwig Spinelli, CEO of Optimus. Bridgeport resident Jennifer Ramos, 23, said after reading the letter sent by the state informing WIC clients of the upcoming changes she could tell the new staff will enforce the program guidelines more strictly than the current staff. "They are going to be a lot more strict now," said Ramos, who has 6-month-old twins. "If you are late or if you miss appointments, they cut you off."

That won't be a problem for Nora Perdomo, who lives just blocks away from Optimus' pediatrics office on East Main Street.

Receiving WIC services from the health care provider -- Optimus -- that serves her and her daughter would be convenient, Perdomo, 34, said in Spanish.

And that's one of the key ways the health center's involvement with the WIC program can benefit local clients, according to Verletha Santiago, WIC coordinator for the two health centers.

"It's about bridging a gap between nutrition and health care," she said, adding that the plan is for people served by both WIC and the health centers, estimated to be a sizable portion of the WIC client list, to be able to make appointments for both services at just one facility.

The transfer of medical information for WIC renewal purposes will also be streamlined by the upcoming changes.

"We are one team with one goal and that is to serve the clients in an efficient manner with compassion and empathy," Santiago said. "We are eager and we are ready and we just hope the clients are ready for the change and will be patient with us."