South Side Achiever

Viccarra Coker cares for mothers and their children in drug court

Viccarra Coker, a 31-year-old licensed practical nurse from the South Side, says all she has ever wanted to do was help people in her community.

So when a program began seeking someone who could link young mothers in drug court with medical services for their children, Coker knew the job was perfect for her.

“As a child, I always said I wanted to be a lawyer, and then when I started doing nursing I was saying, ‘I wish there was a way I could work with the court system in some way,’” Coker said.

Viccarra Coker, who works as a community volunteer ("patient navigator") to help mothers in drug court in Syracuse. | Annie Flanagan, Staff Photo

A year ago, Coker, a lifelong Syracuse resident, became a “patient navigator” for the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization based in New York City that promotes reform in the New York state court system. As the sole employee of the Patient Navigator Program, Coker provides the link between the court system and proper healthcare for women, said Sarah Reckess, senior associate for the Center for Court Innovation.

The Patient Navigator Program tries to improve the health of young mothers and their children by establishing medical care during and after pregnancy, Reckess said. Most of the clients are referred to the program by judges in drug court, but under a new one-year, $50,000 grant from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, the Patient Navigator Program has expanded its operation to more than just drug court, Coker said.

Coker works directly with the women. She helps them receive proper medical attention and obtain items and food — such as diapers and infant formula — that they need to raise a healthy child. Coker said being a mother can be hard sometimes, and she wants to make sure the women get the best care she can provide.

“The last thing I would want is for them to be overwhelmed about something that I can kind of support them with and be a help for,” Coker said.

After speaking with new clients, Coker determines exactly what kind of care they will need. Reckess explained that the need could be as simple as setting up a doctor’s appointment, or as complex as accompanying a pregnant woman when she is giving birth.

Tracie Young-Hall, a current client, said she has high praise for Coker’s work. Young-Hall, who has been in the Patient Navigator Program since last November, said she sees Coker as a role model and a friend.

“She pushes me,” Young-Hall said. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Coker helped Young-Hall search for a job, buy clothes for her children and resolve family issues. Coker also helped her become a certified nursing assistant, which is a nurse who gathers information before the patient sees the doctor.

Children’s drawings decorate a bulletin board in Viccarra Coker’s office. | Annie Flanagan, Staff Photo

“What makes her awesome to me is the person that she is,” Young-Hall said. “She’s a genuine person. Her heart is good.”

Young-Hall said since Coker is a young, working mother, she easily connects with her clients. Coker said she has developed a rapport with many of her clients because she has had similar experiences.

“It makes me feel good and makes the clients feel good to be talking to someone who can relate to what they’re going through,” Coker said. “It allows them to open up.”

Since Coker has lived in Syracuse all her life, she knows a lot about the community she serves. Leah Russell, who teaches English as a second language at the Center for Court Innovation, said this is another reason Coker is a great resource.

“Being a part of and immersed in the community that you serve is a really important part of being able to reach out to your clients and make them feel comfortable,” Russell said. “You understand their experiences and where they come from because you come from there, too.”

Russell said she knows asking for help is hard, but Coker creates an atmosphere of trust and comfort. This allows Coker to help her clients make connections between their daily activities and their long-term health that might not be obvious to them, Russell said.

Coker said she has handled more than 100 cases during her time as patient navigator and that the most rewarding experience is when a baby is born drug-free.

“Every time those babies are born, I’m so happy,” Coker said. “It’s just beautiful for them to have a drug-free birth, a drug-free pregnancy. It’s very rewarding.”

Although Coker works alone, she said she is never overwhelmed by the workload because of the staff members at the Center for Court Innovation. She said she has worked since she was 14 and has never worked with a more supportive group of people.

“I love coming here to work,” Coker said. “I wouldn’t trade this experience personally or professionally for anything in the world.”