Mountain Xpress is thrilled to announce the inaugural recipient of the Julian Award (sponsored by Harmony Motors). Shaneka Simmons will be presented with the $1000 prize on Nov.1 at the Give!Local kickoff party at the Orange Peel. All are invited to attend and join the fun. The award is given to a young person doing creative nonprofit work for our community.
“What is really striking about Shaneka is that she comes to this job having life experience that allows her to really understand
who she is working with. Her interactions with clients and colleagues demonstrate her big heart, and her ability to help people help themselves. She makes this community a better place.” — Miriam Schwarz, CEO Western Carolina Medical Society
Shaneka Simmons is reserved and quiet when you first meet her, but once you get to know her, you notice how she brings humor and kindness wherever she goes. When she talks to her clients, she is able to put them at ease and de-escalate their sometimes panicked state around the complex playing field of healthcare. “I do the work,” she says, “and I bring in humor instead of just being serious…It’s like, hey, it’s OK to laugh and have a moment.”
Shaneka may like to laugh and have a good time, but as coordinator for Western Carolina Medical Society’s Project Access, she’s a dedicated and passionate workhorse for the community. She and her team connect low-income patients with doctors willing to donate their services to those in need. Miriam Schwarz, CEO of WCMS, notes why Shaneka’s approach is so effective. “You have to be able to laugh at absurdities and obstacles in order to get by them and do the work at hand,” she says.
Shaneka first encountered Project Access as a patient in 2008, and then again in 2010 and 2011 — but when she saw a job opening at the organization in 2013, she knew she had the ability. She decided to become a part of the solution.
“I don’t come from a background where I had everything growing up. I was hit with a lot of things. I had my first child at 16.” But, she adds, “I just know that if I can overcome my obstacles and bumps in the road, then I can also help and motivate someone else to do the same.”
Shaneka is quick to offer words of impassioned encouragement. “It’s never too late to … get your degree from school, to get health insurance, to get your driver’s license, to do anything. If you put your mind to it,youcandoit.So,formetobe passionate and help someone, even if it’s just one person, I feel like I am doing my job and fulfilling the purpose I was put here to do.”
Some would say Shaneka has fought the odds her whole life. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 40 percent of women who have a baby while in high school receive their diplomas, and less than 2 percent finish college by the time they are 30 years old. But Shaneka graduated from Erwin High School in 2007. She became certified as a nursing assistant. She received her associate’s degree in human services from A-B Tech in a single year. And, on Oct. 19, she earned her bachelor ’s degree in human services with a concentration on family and children. Along the way, she has interned with Start From Seed, a local nonprofit that provides doula services as well as childbirth assistance and parenting education to families regardless of income level. She now serves on the board of that organization as secretary. In addition, she also finds time to raise her two sons, Kaleb (10) and Kameron (3).
Earlier this year, Shaneka was assisting a long-term Project Access patient who was going blind. She helped find him a health insurance plan that he could afford. Because of that coverage, she says, he could be seen by the right doctor and get the care that will allow him to see his teenage daughter grow up. “It was so nice to know that I had helped this man, to know that he has had a life change. He could go to the doctor and get prescriptions, and he could do so for a reasonable price without having to choose between having health insurance and putting food on his family’s table.”
Her central goal is to make sure her patients remain able to support their families and themselves. “If we have one patient that is able to go in and get [his or her] ACL [injury] fixed so that they can go back to work, we are doing what we need to do.”
Bottom line for WNC: Shaneka and her team helped 2,500 patients last year get assistance from 500 volunteer physicians. The value of that medical care was about $7.5 million dollars.