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Families in need getting array of free medical care at two-day health fair in Salt Lake

SALT LAKE CITY — For Marcos Muller, a University of Utah student majoring in Spanish and with ambitions for medical school one day, volunteering to do something meaningful where those interests converge is always an easy decision.

That's why Muller found himself directing foot traffic and acting as a liaison for Spanish speakers Friday at Utah's largest no-cost health fair, where an oasis of free medical and dental services greeted in-need and uninsured families.

"Service, I feel like, is soothing to the soul," Muller told the Deseret News at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, 1234 S. Main, the home of the event. "It's nice to feel useful."

Each year since 1999, the multipurpose school is transformed into a one-stop shop for parents and their children called the Junior League CARE Fair, where medical staff provide adult and child physical exams, eye tests, hearing screenings, mental health assessments and diabetes evaluations, among other services, all for free.

Thousands of people are expected to attend the event, open until 8 p.m. Friday and again 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Parents are invited to leave their children with on-site caregivers, free of charge, while getting their own complimentary services. Appointments in advance are not necessary.

"When you're low income, it really helps a lot," said Anakaren Reyes, of Salt Lake City, who brought her three children with her for checkups. "It feels good to actually know you're in good health or, if you're sick, get to where you need to be."

The fair originated in the basement of West High School in 1992, serving about 300 people at the time. As word has spread about the free offerings, the fair has steadily expanded in scope and attendance, said Lindsay Egan, spokeswoman for the Junior League of Salt Lake City, the women's volunteer organization responsible for the event.

More than 3,000 patients participated last year, Egan said.

"It takes a year of planning," she said.

Breast exams, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, women's services and cholesterol screenings were all offered free of charge, as were dental cleaning and sealant procedures.

Many of the fair's participants don't speak English fluently, so Muller was able to make himself useful by acting as translator during exams and in between stations. Families who don't speak English are no different when it comes to being conscientious about their health, but often feel helpless about seeking what's best for them without a fluent dialogue with their doctors, Muller said.

"The only thing really holding them back is the language," he said. "If you don't understand your options, how are you going to know what's best for your body?"

Providers and volunteers included Intermountain Healthcare employees and students from the University of Utah Medical School and University of Utah School of Dentistry.

"For people who have no insurance or (little) access to health care, this event is invaluable," said Richard Backman, medical director of the U. School of Medicine's Division of Physician Assistant Studies. "Today allows people who have a health complaint or who just need a general physical to get that provided. It's a pretty incredible event when you think about it."

The free dental cleanings and sealants are especially critical, Backman said, because generally compared to other medical services, "it's very difficult to get low-cost dental care in Salt Lake."

Reyes agreed that "dental is the most expensive out of all of them" if it weren't for fairs like the one held Friday.

A person can also be helped financially beyond this weekend if something troubling is spotted in an exam, Egan said. Last year, she said, a middle-age Somalian refugee was found to have chlamydia, and funds were provided for her longer term treatment.

In all, about $12,145 in medical vouchers and $9,300 in dental vouchers were dispersed to patients following last year's event, according to Egan.

The fair also expands beyond free medical services to other areas helping children stay safe: bike helmets and car seats. Laurie Carlson, from Murray, came not just to get dental treatment for her uninsured granddaughter but to save money by signing her up for a car seat.

"She needed a bigger one," Carlson said, but at the store, "it's like 120 bucks."

Reyes agreed that the free car seats are a godsend.

"(Kids) switch car seats from baby to other stages really fast, and it's hard to afford when I have three right in a row," she said.

Some of the lines stretched on, according to Carlson — "expect to spend all day," she advised — but the wait times are understandable and more than worth it, she said.

Crystal Smith, who made the trip from Ogden, spent the day getting as many services as she could. She advised anyone having second thoughts about coming to not hesitate to come and get help.

"It's great for people who don't have insurance," Smith said. "See everything, if you can."