With music and prizes, Saturday's festival at Windmill Park proved vaccine events can be fun

·4 min read

Oct. 24—FAIRMONT — Saturday's vaccination event at Windmill Park took on more of a community festival atmosphere than a health and education rally with live music, cotton candy, prizes, and even a Ferris wheel.

But there was a message, and it was made clear when the music stopped and Dunbar School Foundation's Stop the Outbreak of the Pandemic Program CEO Romelia Hodges took the stage.

"You will not die from this vaccine," Hodges said as soon as she accepted the microphone.

Hodges spoke about the safety of the vaccine, as well as its availability.

"If you want testing, if you want a vaccination, if you need a booster, we are here for you," Hodges said. "And we do it with compliance through the state of West Virginia. Everything we do is monitored by the state of West Virginia and the Marion County Health Department, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If there are any concerns about what we are doing, or the legitimacy or credibility of what we are doing, just know that it was not easy to get to where we are today. But we're there, with the certification from the state of West Virginia," Hodges said. "And that's what this event is about today. It's about letting you all know that Dunbar School STOP program is here."

Dunbar School Foundation STOP Program Medical Director Kevan Lee-Steele said there is too much confusion around the vaccination.

"We're encouraging people, letting them know that it is safe. And even if there are breakthrough cases, they are mild," Lee-Steele said.

When breakthrough cases are relayed on social media, they are often presented with a dramatic buzz and little mention of the cases' innocuous effects, she said.

The festival included a "community row," where representatives from area organizations offered educational materials with a bit of fun.

The Youth Coalition, in conjunction with the Communities of Shalom, handed out T-shirts, shopping bags and other freebies, as prizes for spinning the wheel of fortune and landing on the proper spot. Marion County Youth Coalition Volunteer Mark Burris was all smiles, despite the rain.

Friendship Fairmont Program Coordinator Chuck VanKirk described the organization's purpose.

"It's a mental wellness and drop-in center," VanKirk said.

People can drop in for help with substance abuse, homelessness or general support. Peer recovery coaches provide counseling and assistance.

"We help people in the homeless community get their IDs, and we help them get housing," VanKirk said.

Past the cotton candy and other treat tables, a large tent was set up for all things COVID. Rapid-response tests and vaccines were available.

"I've been in this fight since the very, very beginning," Hodges said, "and I will be here til it clears, til the end. We're trying to establish sustainability in our community. We're here to provide jobs, we're here to provide resources, we're here to provide services for you all," Hodges said. "The biggest piece of misinformation is that the vaccine is unsafe, and that folks are dying from the vaccine.

"The grant funding that we got caters to the African-American community specifically, however we serve all individuals in Marion, Harrison and Monongalia counties," Hodges said.

"The Dunbar School has given a lot of our African-American elders their third booster, and we're expecting a lot of those elders here today. So, to see them go through the series from February until today, and see that they're alive, they're thriving, they're out here living their lives is an important aspect of this event," Hodges said.

"There is a skepticism [in the African-American community]," Hodges said, "with Tuskegee, and there was a sterilization project, so there is some skepticism. But one of the important aspects of this today is to say that the mRNA vaccine is safe, that its development was led by an African-American woman."

The mRNA vaccine was developed by a team of scientists led by Kizzmekia Corbett and Barney Graham. Corbett, an African-American, is the National Institute of Health's lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research, and is part of a team that worked with Moderna.

"We're here to inform people of the safeness of the vaccine," Hodges said. "And once we have that safety from the vaccine, then America — then our world — can get back to some sense of normalcy."

Dunbar School Foundation STOP Program is located at 101 High St., where people can receive the vaccinations from 5-9 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternating Saturdays.

To reach Lori Riley, email lriley@timeswv.com.

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