Botany's Health Department Satellite Office - Big Things in a Small Package


On Wednesday, March 22nd, Clifton Against Substance Abuse (CASA) hosted a Meet and Greet with the Health Department and our Community Policing Division at the satellite office in Botany. The office, which houses both Health Department services and the small Community Policing Division, is at 207 Parker Avenue. The event was open to the public and was one of many outreach initiatives to bring more awareness of these services to the community.

Robbin Gulino, a grant coordinator who consults with the Health Department, paid her first visit to the satellite office as a representative of CASA. “Tom [Whittles, CASA president] wanted CASA to host in order to share resources and bring awareness to the benefits of the satellite office. Our partnership with the Clifton Police Department and the Health Department is a very valuable benefit for residents of Clifton,” Gulino said. “We were also grateful to Lakeview Bagels and Deli for providing the refreshments.”

Whittles added, “My motivation to host the event was to show thanks to both the community policing division and the Clifton Health Department. Both of these departments work very closely with us to help educate our children. We all have an obligation to push forward the message to the community but most importantly the community needs to know that resources exist.” Judy Bassford, vice president of CASA, was also there to welcome visitors and share information about the volunteer-run organization. To learn more about CASA's mission, read our earlier story HERE.

The satellite office opened last year in April, following a long delay caused by the pandemic, and has already served more than 2,000 people. A community health assessment from 2019 demonstrated a need for better services in the Botany area where language barriers and lack of transportation were making it difficult for many residents to access some of the Health Department’s services. There are also homeless individuals living in this part of the city and the hope was that more of them would come in for help if that help was close by. “The whole point of this office is that we bring the services to them,” said Catalina Dubon-Gutierrez, Infectious Disease Preparedness Generalist and Outreach coordinator. “We want to make sure that this office is a safe space for everyone, that everyone feels comfortable coming in, asking for referrals.”

The Health Department has partnered with many local hospitals and organizations to host hundreds of events and to bring free or low-cost services to residents, including free eye screenings and glasses, vascular screenings, bone-density screenings, foot and ankle screenings, food distributions, legal and financial services, and City Green. Hackensack Meridian, Mountainside, and St. Joseph’s hospitals have all played a part in partnering with this satellite office. Dubon-Gutierrez said that they continue to work on forming partnerships and are currently working on getting additional licenses which would allow the office to perform more services in addition to screenings. Dubon-Gutierrez said the Health Department has been working hard at finding new ways to bring awareness of these services to more of the community. They have sent flyers home with students and are reaching out to various houses of worship and to pediatricians’ offices in an effort to reach more people.

Adriana Alfaro is the city’s social worker, based primarily at 900 Clifton Avenue where the Health Department’s headquarters are. She is scheduled to be at the satellite office from 1-3 pm on Mondays but also comes down for various events as needed. She works with residents to offer referrals for mental health and drug rehabilitation services, can help with housing referrals, and assists with filing initial food stamp and Medicaid applications. New legislation allows for undocumented minors under the age of 19 to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. Alfaro will help residents with filling out the initial application for these services and then offering referrals as needed. She can also help residents to match up with agencies that assist with things like delinquent water and electric bills.

SERV (Social/Educational/Residential/Vocational) Behavioral Health System is a statewide organization with an office in Clifton and has also come to the satellite office to offer services to the community. If you are struggling, you can call 988, which is the new suicide prevention hotline. Residents can also use it if they just need someone to talk to.

Alfaro said that the warming center on Main Avenue was able to help a lot of people over the winter months, including two who ultimately went back to live with family members and one who entered a drug rehabilitation facility. It was a good place to allow for face-to-face interactions with some of Clifton’s most vulnerable and for referrals to be arranged. The warming center will close for the season on March 31.

Clifton’s Health Educator, Layal Helwani, wears many hats. She goes into schools to offer educational programming, creates various screenings for the community, leads stress relief programs, and trains first responders and the DPW on blood-borne pathogens to help keep them safe on the job. She’s also involved in partnering with local hospitals and organizations to offer the many free or low-cost screenings hosted by the Health Department. Many of the partner organizations, like Mountainside Medical Center, volunteer their time and personnel to offer these services to the community. “We have some amazing partners in Clifton,” she said.

Helwani said that funding is their biggest challenge, despite great support from the city. They want to offer free services, as often as possible, to assist as many residents as possible. Responding to misinformation that is spread on social media, particularly during the pandemic, has been another challenge. Speaking of John Biegel, Director of Health and Human Services for the city of Clifton, she said, “He is a phenomenal, phenomenal leader. I don’t think we could have done what we did [during the pandemic] without his leadership.”

Biegel is the division head for everything human-facing which includes the Health Department, Animal Control and the shelter, Recreation, the Art Center, Senior Center, Outreach, and the Hamilton House. Biegel talked about the community health assessment, whose data showed a real need for services in the Botany area. The assessment included focus groups, questionnaires, and secondary research regarding the health needs of the community. From that came a community health improvement plan which focuses on three key areas - neighborhood safety/pedestrian safety, obesity, and mothers and infants.

Some of their projects have included planting a garden at School 12, baby shower events for new mothers, and winning a grant to paint pedestrian crossing lines in different sections of the city with the highest crash rates. Another assessment is due to be completed next year. The department is working on becoming nationally accredited, which would make Clifton only the seventh health department in the state to earn such recognition.

The department was recently awarded a nearly $700,000 grant which will cover a lot of staff salaries, an additional social worker, and another social services assistant who will work specifically with the homeless population.

Aside from funding, “trying to get people to know that we’re here and what services we actually provide” is one of the department’s biggest challenges, Biegel said. He posited that some people might see a government agency and feel intimidated, especially if they are undocumented, but “we don’t care about that. We want you to get the service, whether it be a vaccine for flu or Covid…that’s what we’re here for.”

The Health Department is focused primarily on prevention so that people don’t need medical interventions but the satellite office has been reaching out to North Hudson, a federally qualified and income-based health center for sick visit care. They have a Passaic facility but are willing to offer certain services at the satellite office.

Sometime in April, the satellite office will be hosting a Botany Bash to celebrate their various partnerships and everything they’ve done in their first year.

Catalina Dubon-Gutierrez, Infectious Disease Preparedness Generalist & Outreach
Adriana Alfaro, social worker
Layal Helwani, Health Educator
John Biegel, Director of Health and Human Services
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