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Intrepid Twosome at Wright Center Takes Aim at Hunger, Homelessness and Other Factors Cheating People of Good Health

Gerri McAndrew and Marah Lettieri co-direct our patient and community engagement efforts to promote wellness

Whether hauling frozen turkeys or handling delicate situations, Geraldine “Gerri” McAndrew and Marah Lettieri keep their hands full each workday as they carry The Wright Center’s mission into the community.

It can be a heavy lift.

As co-directors of The Wright Center for Patient and Community Engagement, Gerri and Marah assist vulnerable residents across the region, including individuals struggling with issues such as homelessness, poverty, lack of education and food insecurity.

Their goal: Help individuals and entire families overcome immediate financial and related challenges so they can instead focus on getting and staying healthy.

“In some cases, these individuals are facing dire situations,” says Marah. “Using donated funds to provide bus passes and certain material goods, we’re often able to eliminate the barriers that are preventing people from getting the healthcare they really need.”

Gerri and Marah supply basic necessities such as food and clothing, connections to social services and – perhaps most important – compassion. The aid is sometimes delivered via large-scale community events, such as The Wright Center’s annual winter coat give-away; other times the matters are taken care of discreetly, in one-on-one interactions.

No matter the forum, Marah and Gerri are fast becoming the public faces of The Wright Center for Patient and Community Engagement. The newly renamed and reinvigorated organization is guided by a 17-member board. Its co-chairs are Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, President & CEO of The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education, and William Waters, Ph.D., a retired educator.

The engaged organization relies heavily on patient data to identify and take aim at factors known as the “social and economic determinants of health,” such as poverty, which can prevent people from achieving maximum wellness. The group’s important work took on even more urgency last year during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Northeast Pennsylvania, as unemployment surged and demand for basic necessities skyrocketed. The pandemic initially displaced over 90,000 workers in industries deemed not life-sustaining in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, according to one analysis.

Marah and Gerri quickly mustered Wright Center volunteers and collaborated with other organizations to conduct drive-through food distributions that each drew hundreds of families. Later, during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, they helped to ensure that area homeless individuals and other populations of special concern received timely immunizations.

More routinely, they orchestrate events such as clothing distributions, back-to-school backpack giveaways, activities for seniors who might be socially isolated, holiday meal distributions (requiring hundreds of pounds of frozen turkeys) and blood drives.

No less impressive are the behind-the-scenes ways in which they respond to individual needs. Marah, for example, secured housing in a long-term care facility for a senior coping with dementia who had been staying in a place without heat. She also arranged for a woman to receive a mammogram, which led to the detection of stage IV cancer and treatment. 

Each outreach project and contact, although relatively brief, can have lasting impact on the recipient’s life. That’s because Marah and Gerri try to link individuals to needed services, including appropriate health insurance, employment opportunities, GED programs and housing, as well as to The Wright Center’s wide scope of medical, dental and behavioral health services.

“When you give somebody food, it may be used up in a day or two,” explains Marah. “But by connecting, you let them know that someone cares about them, and it also provides an opportunity for you to point them to resources that can help them over the longer term.”

Intervention on the part of another agency is occasionally required. In one instance, Marah accompanied a Wright Center community health worker to perform a welfare check and deliver food to a patient temporarily staying at a motel. Upon entering the man’s room and calling his name, several mice scurried across the trash-strewn floor. “We had to file a report with adult protective services,” says Marah. “That was probably the oddest experience I’ve had on the job, and one of the saddest.”

To their credit, Marah and Gerri go about the emotionally fraught job of confronting hardship with equal parts kindness and humor. They are The Wright Center’s modern-day version of Laverne and Shirley, two pals lobbing funny banter at each other while seemingly stumbling from one zany predicament to another.

“I’m bossy,” declared one of the co-directors at the start of an interview for this article.

The other retorted: “That’s why I have to be in therapy, you know?”

Then they offered a summary of their more bizarre experiences: The home meal delivery that took place on a perilous San Francisco-like, one-way street. The stuck elevator and the indifferent custodian. The unrepentant whiskey drinker.

“We could fill a journal with our stories,” says Gerri. “We definitely get our laughs. Yet we get the satisfaction through our daily work that we helped someone.”

To amplify the impact of their do-good efforts, they frequently partner on activities with area nonprofit organizations and charitable programs such as St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen, the Community Intervention Center, the Salvation Army of Scranton and the NEPA Youth Shelter.

They travel in tandem to community settings, apartment complexes and individuals’ homes, and they’re frequently spotted together around The Wright Center’s headquarters at event planning sessions and board meetings. In fact, Gerri and Marah spend so much time in each other’s presence, they probably should go by a single name like one of those celebrity couples. Gerah? Or maybe Marri?

The pals – each of whom is a Lackawanna County native, community-minded advocate and mother – are well-suited for their roles as aid-givers.

Gerri, 53, is a Mayfield native and Lakeland High School graduate whose father died when she was only a girl. Her mother, who was active in their church, instilled in her the value of service. Gerri later earned a degree from Lackawanna College and spent 15 years working for a Clarks Summit obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Jung Hwan, before joining The Wright Center nearly 16 years ago.

Marah, 48, is an alumna of Scranton Central High School and Misericordia University. As a parent, she has relied on The Wright Center’s healthcare providers to treat her children and come to view the organization as a significant community asset. “I’m passionate today about letting people know how we can help them,” she says, “because I’ve been helped.”

Among today’s diverse patient population at The Wright Center for Community Health, transportation is among the top requested forms of assistance. To meet this need, Marah and Gerri instituted Uber Health within our primary care practices so that eligible patients can get rides to and from healthcare appointments.

Clothing also is in high demand. Not long ago, a man newly released from an area hospital arrived at our Mid Valley Practice wearing only a paper top and scrubs. “He literally didn’t have any clothes on his back,” says Marah. “Gerri went and got him some things from the Dollar Store; then we ordered new clothes, including underwear, off of Amazon. He was really appreciative.”

“Usually in this role you get an impactful case like that weekly,” she says, “a little vignette that you just don’t forget.”

One of those memorable vignettes involves an older woman who, during the intake process at a food distribution event, put her head down on the table as if she might be woozy. Marah alerted a colleague, thinking the situation would soon require medical intervention. Instead, it became apparent the woman was crying. It was the anniversary, she told them through the tears, of her daughter’s death.

“I asked the woman if she would sit with us and assist with the project,” says Marah. “She agreed and a while later she indicated she was feeling better. She didn’t even necessarily need food that day. She needed the interaction, the validation of somebody listening to her.”

Listening to patients – and learning about their challenges – is central to The Wright Center’s brand of care, and it’s what led to the establishment about five years ago of an informal group that was the forerunner of The Wright Center for Patient and Community Engagement.

“A group of employees at the Mid Valley Practice wanted to start helping the community and patients in ways beyond the expected,” recalls Gerri, who then worked as a medical assistant. “I remember one man went through cancer treatment, and all he said he wanted to do if the treatment succeeded was go to the beach. Well, he received the good news. So when he came in for his next primary care visit, we went ahead and had a beach theme set up for him: two beach chairs, an umbrella and a cooler.”

An auxiliary was begun, and Gerri took charge of holding occasional fundraisers; donations enabled her to, for instance, provide a child with a school uniform or give a gasoline gift card to a family whose loved one needed care at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She also initiated a food pantry, stocking non-perishable items to send home with patients who indicated they had little to eat.

The auxiliary has been phased out, but the new organization’s co-directors continue to execute fundraising activities, such as raffles. As always, the money is devoted to patient assistance. And as of 2021, there’s also a new way for employees and the public to support the worthwhile effort: Shop at The Wright Center merchandise store.

A portion of all proceeds from the sale of branded clothing and other items will benefit our Patient and Community Engagement efforts, allowing Marah and Gerri to continue their outreach – and their distributions of necessities.

Rarely seen empty-handed, our dynamic duo are accustomed to lugging 50-pound bags of carrots, cabbage and other produce, plus all the other things (frozen turkeys and bulky coats and educational pamphlets and such) that they dispense. “We laugh because you can never just slide into our cars; they’re filled with food and other items for the families we serve,” Gerri says.

Yes, it can be a heavy lift. But raising another person’s outlook – and shot at a healthy life – is worth the effort.

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