(Video by Mukala Kabongo and Dalinda Ifill-Pressat)
By Mario D. Zepeda
Rhonda Dickson said she’s never been more concerned about the financial stability of social service programs in Massachusetts, such as WIC – a special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children.
For 40 years, Dickson, the director of WIC in Boston’s South End, has helped low-income families get the nutrition they need but now she worries that budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration may sharply impact the funds needed to sustain the program.
According to Dickson, new government policies may impact the program’s funding, “I hear they want to put us into a block grant with other programs. I hear health and human services programs are going to be cut,” she said.
Dickson said that programs such as “Meals-on-Wheels” may receive less funding after a recent proposed budget cut by President Trump. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t be on the chopping block too,” she said.
Dickson is the South End/Roxbury Program Director for WIC. She oversees the offices at the South End Community Health Center, Boston Medical Center, Whittier Street Health Center, and The Dimock Center.
“I want to make a difference. I’ve seen the changes that WIC has had in making the community healthier,” Dickson said.
WIC provides a platform for families to achieve a healthy lifestyle. While the program primarily focuses on children and pregnant or breastfeeding women, it is applicable for all Massachusetts residents who have a nutritional need and a household income that meets the program’s income guidelines.
Since its establishment in 1974, the program improved to better serve families, providing preventative services for participants who suffer from drug and alcohol abuse, dental training to parents with newborns, breast feeding classes, nutrition and cooking classes, and housing referrals. The program also now provides families with a card for food purchases- similar to an ATM card – instead of the voucher booklets once used.
In Massachusetts, WIC continues to provide nutritional meal packages and health education to qualified residents and continues to expand on programs such as WIC FIT and WIC SMART.
Undocumented immigrants can apply for WIC. “You don’t need to be a citizen to get WIC. We don’t turn people away,” Dickson said.
Dickson said that some undocumented immigrants who come to her office for the program’s services are afraid doing so will jeopardize their chances of obtaining permanent residency when they apply.
“We are trying to let people know that we are here for them and that they don’t have to worry,” she said.
Dickson said that while her job consists of reporting paper work to the federal and state government, WIC does not report to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Our main focus is to serve the community and the people. If it’s pending paperwork, that can wait, people cannot,” she said. “People are suffering; people are starving, whether they are undocumented or not.”
Dickson said that her offices print out rights cards – cards with information for undocumented immigrants to know their rights in the event they are stopped by ICE – for clients, and has an available list of Pro Bono immigration attorneys.
South End Location
Dickson said she finds joy in welcoming all cultures and nationalities. Employees at her office are fluent in French Creole and Spanish as a second language, and employees at other locations speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, French, Cape Verdean Creole, and Portuguese – all with efforts to better service residents in the community seeking WIC services.
“We do a lot of education around how to prepare certain foods. New cultures come into Massachusetts so we learn about their culture and diet. People have gone through many changes, we don’t want people to think they cannot have the foods they’re used to eating,” Dickson said.
Wanda Medina, Program Assistant for 15 years at the South End WIC office, said the best part of her job is working with the people in the community. “It’s a great job; listening to them and making them stronger,” she said.
Joanne Dorgilus is a WIC nutritionist who worked at the South End office for a year. “We are here to help you, not only to give you supplements like milk and cheese, but also to give you nutritional council,” Dorgilus said.
April 2017 marks Dickson’s 40th year at WIC. She said she wants to continue to make sure she’s there for people in the community for years to come. “I want to keep on doing this because people need us,” Dickson said.