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Barbershop Wellness Brings Health Care Directly to Dunbar Neighborhood

From Jonathon Little, Guest Columnist

On a balmy Saturday morning in Fort Myers, residents of the Dunbar neighborhood congregate at Utopia Unisex Salon and Soul Food, as they have for more than 30 years. This Saturday looked a little different, however, as Lee Health teamed up with the Florida Department of Health Lee County and the McGregor Clinic to perform routine health screenings and provide educational materials to members of the community.

The monthly barbershop wellness program aims to reach residents of the neighborhood by bringing care directly to those who need it. The idea was a collaboration between Diane Spears, a nurse at Lee Health, and Karen Krieger, community outreach program manager for Lee Health. The thought was simple, by bringing preventative care and screening to those who normally don’t go to the doctor, they can be empowered to take control of their health before developing more serious conditions.

History has shown that the African American community is often deeply cautious of going to the doctor. This is a trend that Spears hopes to reverse.

“In all of my years of caring for patients I’ve noticed the same issues, the African American community often does not regularly go to the doctor, and by the time we see them, we don’t have many options because they waited too long,” said Spears, who has been a nurse at Lee Health for more than 50 years.

Spears notes the most common things that she and her team can screen for are conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. Often, the people she screens don’t know they are sick, and she wants to help them manage their conditions before they lead to vision problems or a stroke or heart attack. 

Utopia is a staple of the Dunbar community. Owned by Tracee Tobler, the salon has been operated by members of her family since opening more than 30 years ago. When approached with the idea of hosting the barbershop wellness program, Tobler saw the perfect opportunity to give back to the community that has helped her business thrive.

“The barbershop has always been a place where people talk and have a good time,” said Tobler. She acknowledges the fear of the doctor many members of the African American have, particularly so for black men. “Many of the people who come to our salon or restaurant haven’t been to the doctor in years, and when they come here they are in a relaxed more comfortable state of mind,” she added.

That feeling of comfort is the thing that makes the program successful. Taking place the first Saturday of every month, Lee Health has already seen increased interest in the resources and health screenings since the program first launched in November. According to Spears, only a handful of people took advantage of the free program during its first day. However, as the program has progressed, there has been an increased comfort level from patrons of the salon. February’s event reached about 30 people in two hours.

“I think this is a great resource for our community, I am already coming here to get my haircut and now I can also make sure I’m taking care of my health,” said John Powell of Fort Myers who spoke with a nurse on his way into the salon.

In addition to health screenings and providing educational resources, Lee Health nurses and volunteers can also help refer people to a doctor if the screenings reveal pressing health concerns. Spears refers to hypertension as a “silent killer,” and points out that many black men don’t even realize they have high blood pressure until they have a heart attack. 

In addition to screenings, each month focuses on a different area of health care. For February, the focus was on STD prevention and awareness. The McGregor Clinic brought their bus and provided free STD testing with immediate results. The Florida Department of Health Lee County handed out kits aimed at prevention. In the kit, people received educational materials, condoms and information about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to help protect against HIV.

The barbershop wellness program was originally supposed to launch nearly two years ago, but the global COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold. Spears was ecstatic to finally see her vision come to fruition, and the passion for her helping her community rang through her voice as she talked about what’s next.

“We want to expand, we want to go to more barbershops here in Dunbar to help people. People don’t need to get sick; we take our time with every person we speak with to help them become more comfortable with going to the doctor and provide them with a pathway to improved health and wellness,” she said.

PHOTO: Diane Spears (left) and Tracee Tobler stand in front of Utopia Unisex Salon where free health screenings are offered the first Saturday of every month as part of Lee Health’s barbershop wellness program.