Community Health Worker Program Grads Get Equipped to Make an Impact

By on May 30, 2019
Community Health Worker Program Grads

“We are advocates for our community. We are advocates for people who have no voice,” declared St. Louis Community College (STLCC) community health worker (CHW) program student Janice Pappas as she addressed the graduation crowd. “We search for resources for them. We listen without judgment in our hearts. Community health workers are on the front lines. We are the fact finders, and we find things out about our patients so we can help them with better health outcomes.”

Life-change agents. Fact finders. Healthcare system navigators. A voice for community members in need.

Community health workers wear just as many monikers as they do hats. These trusted members of the community assist individuals and societies in their adoption of healthy behaviors and conduct outreach for community or health organizations to implement programs that promote, maintain and improve individual and community health.

“A lot of people may not know what it is about yet, but it’s like being a life-change agent,” said fellow graduate, Victoria Villarreal. “We not only help people connect with resources, but we give them the support that they may not have, and when they have people to give them guidance and support, they can do better.”

STLCC recently granted 12 students with a certificate of completion from its ninth cohort of the College’s community health worker program, bringing the total number of students who have graduated since the accelerated training program began in 2016 to more than 100.

Support for the community health worker role continues to grow

As an indication the CHW field’s increasing popularity, the National Association of Community Health Workers (NACHW) was launched on April 15th at the Unity Conference in Las Vegas. The conference was attended by more than 800 individuals from all over the United States, Canada, Germany and Australia. The conference celebrated the ongoing contributions of CHWs to public health and laid out a vision for how NACHW will take the work of CHWs to the next level for even greater impact on the populations they serve.

Even closer to home, the Community Health Workers Association of Missouri has been established and CHW program graduates Atara Estes, Phillip Brooks and LaReecia Carter have been elected as officers of the association. Additionally, the CHW Statewide Task Advisory Board is partnering with the Missouri Credentialing Board to develop and implement a statewide industry credential for CHWs, which should become available in 2019. Carter was also chosen to serve on the Missouri State Credentialing Board as a representative for the CHW credential.

The students of this cohort received the training at no cost, supported by a CDC grant from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and a Missouri Foundation for Health grant received by Integrated Health Network (IHN). There are typically 12 to 14 students in each cohort, and at least half of the seats are incumbent workers who are participating as part of employment. Individuals from the most recent graduation represented Mission: St. Louis, Family Care Health Centers, BJC HealthCare and Mercy Hospital South.

Community health worker program aids students with varying levels of experience

Graduate Shamara Stephens has worked in community-oriented roles for many years as a police officer, drug court liaison, correctional officer, foster care manager among other roles. She currently serves as operations manager for Mission: St. Louis, an organization focused on ending poverty in St. Louis.

“We work with men who are typically coming out of prison and we help them get their lives together,” she said. “We help them get jobs and housing, we help with child support issues, mental health or physical health issues—it’s the whole spectrum.”

Many of Stephens’ colleagues have already attended STLCC’s community health worker program and she was eager to follow in their footsteps to uncover even more resources that could help her further her organization’s mission.

“I’ve done this kind of work forever, and I thought I had seen it all,” said Stephens. “But to come in and see the different aspects I didn’t know from the people who came in and talked to us, the people in the class…this was really, really great for me.”

Fellow classmate Villarreal is currently pursuing a degree in public health from Lindenwood University, where one of her instructors suggested that STLCC’s community health worker program would be a sensible complement to her education. Her hope is that her education, life experience and Hispanic background will enable her to help meet the growing demand for bilingual CHWs in the city. The choice to enter this line of work is personal for Villarreal and many other CHWs, who have been motivated by their own past struggles.

“It was hard sometimes to be able to focus on school and focus on things to do when my mind was somewhere else. You can’t really focus on school if you’re hungry. You can’t really focus on school if you’re afraid to come home,” she said. “So, coming from that background, it just made me have a heart more for people and for justice, and for being able to help others access those resources that they may not know of or that they may know of but there are barriers in the way.”

For classmate Mitch Brems, the program offered an opportunity to explore a new career path. He already had a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in health science and thought the CHW program would reveal new employment avenues that leveraged his education.

“I found the program doing some research because I wanted a career change,” Brems said. “With it being a relatively quick program that’s all grant-funded and it is in my background, I figured this would be a good résumé builder with a lot of good learning experience. It called to me because I felt like I was going to be a part of something bigger than myself, and I felt like I was going to go to a job that was going to be rewarding no matter what. It seemed so interdisciplinary and you could fit anywhere with it. I felt like I could be viable in pretty much any scenario.”

Healthcare system navigators. A voice for community members in need.

STLCC gives community health workers the tools essential for service

This 12-week, non-credit program combines 108 hybrid classroom hours with 60 service-learning hours. The classroom instruction covers a variety of topics including the role of community health workers, chronic disease management, community organizing and advocacy, client-centered counseling and more. The service-learning experience provides individuals with the opportunity to learn and participate in resource gathering, networking and outreach, and job shadowing.

“Every week we had a new chapter whether it was public health or home visits. [We learned] how to meet individuals where they’re at and understand that everyone is different, and how to listen better and read body language,” Villarreal said. “It was eye opening. Day to day, we can forget about those things, but this class humbles you to see that everybody has different needs and [we need] to be able to help meet those needs and help people find their voice.”

Brems also agreed that the classroom instruction helped him see things from a relatable and relevant point of view.

“It all felt tangible. It all felt real,” he said. “What we need to talk about right now is pertinent, so it felt more engaging. It didn’t feel like I was in a class. It felt like I was part of a bigger discussion.”

One of Brems’ favorite parts of the class was the guest speakers who shared their real-world experiences and helped provide the students with a comprehensive view of what it takes to be an effective CHW.

“One that stuck out to me the most was when someone from IHN came in and spoke on trauma and how that’s the clientele we’ll be working with, and how to be trauma-informed and be aware of the situations people have gone through, how that has made them the person they are now,” he said. “She wiped what she was planning to say and went into that because she thought it was more pertinent information to us now. It was very raw and very real.”

Many of the students were adult learners with other obligations and were eager to praise the flexibility and support they received from the community health worker program staff and their facilitator, Sandra Ginger, who has been teaching for STLCC since 2011.

“Mrs. Ginger, she was a great professor,” said Villarreal. “I’ve never had a professor who was so open and loving and encouraging, and that is what we had here. [The staff] gave me grace and said, ‘We know you have a lot going on with school and work.’ I’m a full-time student, with full-time work and campus ministry. We had encouraging staff, an encouraging facilitator.”

Ginger reciprocated gratitude for the students, whom she said give her a meaningful opportunity to educate and serve the community.

“The students thank me, but I have learned much more from them,” she said. “I want them to know their value. I want the students to understand what they have available to them and how they can benefit each other—not only the community, but each other—in knowing who they are and what they have to provide for everyone. The class has been extremely rewarding to me, and I am eternally grateful that I have had the opportunity to be a facilitator. It is extremely meaningful.”

Under Ginger’s guidance, the students created extensive resource manuals that will become vital sources of information for them as they care for members of the community.

“I really liked it because you made five different subsections that pertain to different topics, like I have one on mental health, one on fall prevention, one on senior home living,” said Brems. “I know that I want to be able to have something that I can pull out and find a name of an agency and an education program and walk [individuals] through these steps and figure this out together. It will not be something that will just sit on my bookshelf.”

Ginger spoke of one student who was already able to make a significant impact in her work with Saint Louis Public Schools during her time in the community health worker program.

“She was responsible for making sure that the students’ immunizations were up to date,” Ginger said. “She was tasked with calling the parents and making sure they had the complete records, but what she really did—for those whose records were not up to date—she was able to get a van to come to school to provide the immunizations for them. That is huge.”

CHW students set their sights on elevating the community and the field

Equipped now with practical education, in-person experience and boundless resources, the community health worker program students are ready to bring significant hope and value to the communities in which they work and live.

“The dedication everybody has—they’re getting people who truly want to help,” Stephens said. “People who really want to go that extra mile. I think that’s going to be a benefit for the community.”

Upon completing the program, students not already employed in the field often seek CHW positions with federally qualified health care centers such as CareSTL Health or Affinia Healthcare; hospitals like Barnes-Jewish Hospital or Mercy Hospital; and community organizations such as Mission: St. Louis, AmeriCorps VISTA, Nurses for Newborns, or Beyond Housing.

Villarreal, who has been a CHW at Family Care Health Centers since October 2018, plans to continue working in the field while completing her undergrad degree and ultimately pursuing a master’s in public health and social justice.

“I know we have a lot of need in the community,” she said. “I’d like to broaden my knowledge and implement different programs and health policies. The CHW role has definitely given me different skills I didn’t even know I had to help with advocacy and system navigation.”

Brems hopes to use his experience to elevate the CHW field and raise awareness about the availability of CHWs to people who have a need but are not aware that the resources even exist.

“I really want to become part of the CHW board here in St. Louis,” he said. “There’s a conference coming up in Kansas City that I want to go and be a part of, and really integrate myself into working with the people that are trying to make this coalition happen, so we can be a tight uniform group and expand and be recognized as CHWs and establish a name for our careers.”

CHWs provide a valuable service to individuals and the communities in which they reside, and STLCC’s community health worker program is an integral source of knowledge for those in pursuit of this meaningful line of work.

“I think this will open up a lot of doors,” Stephens said. “They have forced me out of my bubble. It can only go up from here.”

Want to learn more about training for a career that makes an impact on people’s lives? Visit STLCC’s community health worker accelerated job training program webpage or call 314-539-5900 to learn more.

About Rebecca Rutherford

Rebecca Rutherford is Marketing Communications Coordinator of St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group, which delivers non-credit continuing education opportunities, corporate training and community services to the St. Louis region.

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