Inspired by her Son, This Community Organizer is Committed to Getting Kids Vaccinated for COVID-19

Since fall 2020, Jereka R. Thomas-Hockaday has led a major local effort to take care of her Austin, Texas neighbors in "any way, shape, or form."

After two years of parenting through a global pandemic, anyone raising a child has felt beyond exhausted. It's something Jereka R. Thomas-Hockaday, EdD, co-founder of Central Texas Allied Health Institute in Austin, Texas, understands all too well as the mom of a 4-year-old herself. Her little one is full of energy "24/7." But her "smart, bright, very kind" boy is also the reason she's put her nose to the grindstone to provide COVID-19 tests and shots for her community.

"I want to make sure that he is OK and he is protected," she notes, adding that children are "most precious."

Thomas-Hockaday is also committed to supporting students who are at 200 percent or below the federal minimum poverty. Central Texas Allied Health Institute (CTAHI) was founded in 2019 on the premise of helping these students pursue careers in the health care field as a means of getting out of poverty and into the middle class, and the institution has a very targeted population of students of color, she explains.

Since October 2020, the proud mom has channeled her love of her son and her community into CTAHI's COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts.

CTAHI began offering COVID-19 testing in East Austin after being asked for help by the city's public health department. "East Austin is the largest underserved community in the Austin Central Texas area," explains Thomas-Hockaday. "There was not a standup static clinic for folks to come get tested. We gladly decided yes, this was something we wanted to do, because we are a nonprofit community organization, and that is our goal—having partnership with the community and taking care of the community in any way, shape, or form."

In March 2021, CTAHI began doing vaccination events in their static clinic and at various other sites. Students do everything from the vaccinations to the registrations. It's a way for the students to get practical experience before heading out into the health care workforce, explains Thomas-Hockaday.

"The purpose is to get shots in arms," she notes. "We've had 600 some days, but we average about 200 people an event."

While Thomas-Hockaday and CTAHI's focus is clearly on serving their neighbors, they've been recognized nationally as well, appearing on season 6 of Netflix's Queer Eye. "It was a really good experience," she shares. "The Fab Five were wonderful to us. I still talk to them all the time."

The appearance threw a spotlight on what the institution is trying to do for Austin. It's no surprise the city has responded with an outpouring of support. When funding from Austin Public Health ran out, people in the community donated and volunteered, recalls Thomas-Hockaday. "The community basically told us, 'Please stay open, because we trust you,'" she says.

CTAHI continues to adapt to serve their neighbors. Thomas-Hockaday says they recently moved their clinic over to the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, so that they could be right in the center of the community in which they are serving.

And as the group's vaccinations efforts carry on, the doctor of education believes there's "an end in sight."

"It's my honest opinion that COVID will probably be with us for the rest of our lives, but if we do what we need to do, we can get it to a point where it's just living at a low rate among all of us—exactly the way the flu is," she says.

In an effort to get to that level, Thomas-Hockaday urges parents to talk to their pediatrician and trusted health care provider to get solid information on the virus. Her bottom line: "I encourage parents to get their children vaccinated." After all, it's one thing that can be done to protect the next generation.

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