Translating Hope

Ascary Arias offers the Latino community quality health
and dental care with Vidas De Esperanza clinic in Siler City

By Matt White  |  Photography by Briana Brough

Elba Aguirre Moscoso and her daughter, Heidi, 11, sit quietly in the small basement waiting room of a squat brick building in southern Siler City. Through large windows in the room’s wood paneled walls, she can see the volunteers of the Vidas De Esperanza clinic, Spanish for “Lives of Hope.” The clinic’s primary doctor, Steve Kizer, occasionally strolls through the office while two teenage girls eagerly learn how to record vital signs from the clinic’s nurses. Heidi, a sixth-grader at Chatham Middle School, quietly reads a book while Elba waits her turn to be called back. She’s among the almost 50 patients the Vidas staff will see this Saturday. Nearly all are, like Elba, residents of Siler City or a nearby town, nearly all Latino with little or no English skills, and nearly all are women.

Men, say the Vidas staff, only come to the clinic in large numbers closer to Christmas, when Chatham County’s factory and construction jobs take a break for the holidays.

Like many families at Vidas, Elba’s children do not need to see a doctor here. As kids, they qualify for various government programs. But for Elba and hundreds of other Latinos in Chatham County, Vidas is a lifeline. The clinic opens one Saturday a month, and Elba has been coming for three years for checkups and medicine refills.

“When I was pregnant I was going to the clinic [in Moncure], but, when I delivered, [that] ended,” she says in Spanish. “No doctor,” Carolina Torres, Vidas’ office manager, translates for Elba. Originally from Honduras, Carolina was an architect before moving to Pittsboro. She started volunteering at the clinic after meeting Vidas’ founder, Ascary Arias, at a local coffee shop. The two quickly bonded over their shared immigrant background. Ascary asked her to come help, and she’s been a constant presence since, smiling and welcoming patients, and keeping the administrative side on track.

Ascary launched the Vidas clinic in 2012, soon after moving to Chatham County from Greensboro. For several years, he set up temporary clinics in his hometown in Mexico, bringing in area doctors and dentists for a week or so at a time. But with Vidas, he wanted a permanent location in Chatham.

“I’m always one that needs to be helping, I guess,” says Ascary. “If I’m not in some way or another giving back, I feel like I’m not doing my part.”

At 17, Ascary left his hometown of Ixmiquilpan, Mexico for North Carolina, where his parents were laborers in Fuquay-Varina. His father was a landscaper while his mother worked in the drying houses of the tobacco farms.

“They came for the same reason many people come from Mexico,” he says. “To start a new life.”

After a season working with his mother drying tobacco leaves, he began looking for jobs where he could work on his English – washing dishes at restaurants, working at construction sites and other odd jobs.

“Luckily, I pick up languages pretty fast,” he says.

Ascary met his wife, Liz, a Chapel Hill native, when she was a student at UNC. The two dated as she graduated and began teaching in local schools. As his English improved, she gave him daily essays to write when she was at school. Each evening, she’d go over it. The homework paid off: when Ascary signed up for a GED course, he finished in three months.

“I was always the kid repeating a grade when I was little,” says Ascary. “I repeated third grade and sixth grade. But after that I realized, ‘I’m capable of this.’”

Ascary and Liz got married and took turns going to school: first Liz went to Campbell University School of Law, then Ascary to Greensboro College, where he played soccer and graduated with degrees in Spanish and sociology. But it was a trip back to Ixmiquilpan as a junior that inspired Vidas.

When he first arrived, he found his old home had decayed to rubble. It initially filled him with an urge to show off, to show his former neighbors what he had become. “I stood there and I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to build the biggest house in my barrio so everybody can see I made it,’” he says. “I’m thinking that when, behind me, in the rubble, comes a kid [with] no shoes and raggedy clothes. I looked at him, and I thought of me when I was his age.” That’s what sparked the clinic.

Over the next few years, Ascary organized trips back home, recruiting doctors through Vidas’ Dr. Kizer – who is Liz’s father and a longtime UNC physician – and raising money with long-distance bike rides, including one to Mexico. Each trip, his medical team would see about 250 patients and as many dental cases. They also built water systems and ramps for the disabled and donated school supplies.

While Dr. Kizer and the other doctors saw patients, Ascary found his skill was breaking through social barriers. “When we talk about the building part [of the mission], it’s always talking to the men,” Ascary says. “But when I want to find out what people need, I talk to the women.”

When Liz’s law firm transferred her to Raleigh in 2012, the couple had three daughters and a new son. They loved the small-town pace and easy friendships in Chatham County and moved into a home on several acres off Log Barn Road. While Liz commuted, Ascary threw himself into launching Vidas. “When I heard that Siler City was 51 percent Latino, I said, ‘I’m going,’” Ascary says. “The chicken plants had closed, and immigration issues kept families away from doctors. Latinos are always hesitant to come out.”

A local doctor told Ascary he could set up shop in a building he owned, and Ascary began visiting Spanish communities deep in the county’s backroads, passing out flyers. Each month, word spread and the line in the waiting room grew.

“The Spanish community is very tight-knit here,” he says. “They’re afraid of anything with the government, so we get most of our patients through word of mouth.” While most of the chronic ailments Vidas patients arrive with – diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay – can be controlled with medicine and regular checkups, few get it.

The day that Elba visits, Ascary is missing from the clinic, pulled away by the one passion he allows to compete with Vidas for his time: coaching soccer. But this particular Saturday marks a milestone for Vidas, the debut of dental services.

After three years of collecting equipment and rebuilding the back half of the building, Vidas has an X-ray machine, three exam chairs, specialized lights and all the required plumbing and specialized tools of a dental clinic. Several UNC dental students are at the clinic, including Jonathan Solares. He remembers coming to Vidas and being inspired to pursue medicine as a Northwood High School student volunteer.

“I try to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community,” he says. “They have so few options.”

Back in the waiting room, a teen with long black hair soon calls Elba. She is Liliana Arias, 14, Ascary’s oldest daughter and a freshman at Northwood. She knows many of the patients, and they know her. They smile at each other and say hello in Spanish before Liliana enters her data in a computer, takes her vital signs and leads her back to a small examination room. Dr. Kizer is waiting, and Elba smiles. CM

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