by Courtney Patterson

We all want to feel like our lives matter. So we become doctors. We give birth. We teach English in Japan. We make art.  Sometimes with deliberation and sometimes not, we choose the pieces that give meaning to our own personal life puzzle.

One of those pieces that has fed Jude Vachon, 48-year old librarian, artist, and healthcare advocate, in a big way for the past eight years is a project called Be Well! Pittsburgh, a guide she created to connect Pittsburghers who don’t have health insurance to necessary care and resources.  In May, Vachon announced on www.bewellpgh.org that she is ending the project.

“My work has a lot to do with access. I want that for myself and I want that for other people,” said Vachon, sporting a flowered velvet blazer the day I met her at Espresso a Mano. “I’m stopping Be Well!, because of what’s happening with healthcare right now. The resources for low income, uninsured people may not be as relevant anymore.” Vachon is speaking of the changes she anticipates when the Affordable Care Act takes effect in January 2014.

Vachon wouldn’t call herself an activist, nor would she consider her work altruistic. If anything, she would call herself lucky. She started Be Well! Pittsburgh in 2005 after she experienced her own health crisis.  A shoulder injury developed at a most inconvenient time—she was in between jobs, low income, and uninsured. After spending months seeking help and researching options, her shoulder worsened to the point that she needed to visit the ER. UPMC could not tell her how much her hospital stay would cost, so she walked out.

While Vachon was looking for relief for her shoulder, people around her were sharing their own stories of medical frustration. A coworker told her that her grandmother was going into credit card debt to pay for her cancer drugs. “Whenever people would tell me these stories, I would do research online and find resources for them. I was realizing in a really painful way that there was an information gap. There really are resources nobody knows about, and that drove me crazy.”

Flyer for the Be Well! Healthcare Fair and Zine Release in 2006.

Flyer for the Be Well! Healthcare Fair and Zine Release in 2006.

So crazy, in fact, that Vachon came up with an idea to compile all of the information on local social services and health care organizations she had been finding into a booklet, print 6,000 copies, and distribute them around the city at social service agencies, laundromats, coffee shops, the corner store—any place where she could get them into the hands of the low income and uninsured.

A friend encouraged her to ask The Sprout Fund for support. As an artist, Vachon knew of The Sprout Fund, but she never saw herself as the kind of person who wrote and received grants.  “I didn’t know anything about writing grants. I was intimidated by it. Now grant writing is a regular part of my life. The Sprout Fund taught me skills that have been extremely valuable in my community work in terms of envisioning a project, articulating it, collaborating, building relationships and connections, budgeting, evaluating a project after it’s done, and documenting it.”

In 2006, Vachon wrote her first successful grant proposal. With a Seed Award, she and a friend, Jay Poliziani, organized a healthcare fair at the Quiet Storm to launch Be Well! Pittsburgh. The community’s response was overwhelmingly positive, and the project continued to attract support year after year. Vachon received a Sprout Fund Root Award in 2007, a Pittsburgh 250 Community Connections Grassroots Award in 2008, an award from the Pittsburgh Creativity Project in 2008, and support from the office of Councilman Patrick Dowd in 2012 and 2013. That continuous funding allowed Vachon to update the listings on the website and in the booklets each year, as well as dedicate time to building relationships with health care and social service providers and participating in community events.  In her farewell message on the website, Vachon quantifies Be Well! Pittsburgh’s impact: over the course of 8 years, she has distributed over 16,000 booklets in seven editions. The website averages between 3500 and 4000 hits per month.

As her understanding of healthcare needs grew, Vachon tailored the content to different populations: Seniors, the LGBTQ community, Spanish speakers, and people with disabilities. “At one point I realized, I have all these clinics listed but I don’t know if people can get into the front door with a wheel chair.”

“It’s moving how much is being done to empower people to get what they deserve and help them be well,” Vachon said. “There are so many people fighting the good fight, despite the bizarre resistance in our culture to making sure everybody has adequate healthcare.” Vachon admits she was encouraged by pieces of the Affordable Care Act – better oversight of the insurance industry and elimination of the pre-existing condition clause – but it wasn’t the healthcare overhaul she was hoping for. “For me, it’s just this gigantic compromise. We just need universal coverage and we have to regulate it, because given the choice employers will find ways around providing coverage.”

Julie Sokolow, another Seed Award recipient, who interviewed Vachon in her Healthy Artists documentary series, called Vachon a true hero. “It’s incredible to think of Jude’s tremendous health advocacy work since Be Well!’s conception, all while she’s juggled a multi-faceted life as a librarian, artist, crafter, zine-maker, and community organizer.”

Although Vachon will no longer be putting her efforts toward Be Well! Pittsburgh, she has no lack of fulfilling projects in her life. As a librarian with the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, she manages the zine collection, teaches computers, and recently started facilitating book discussions at the Allegheny County jail. She is helping the Roboto Project organize their zine collection, and teaching men about zine writing at a shelter on the Northside. She recently collaborated on a zine called “Take Good Care,” with friend and fellow activist, Lizzie Anderson. At home, she likes to make quilts.

“I won’t stop caring about healthcare. My mother was a nurse her whole life. I think it’s in me.”

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