Community Healthcare Workers Meeting The Needs Of People

June 3, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood,
RN, PhD, FAAN Professor, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing

With health equity front and center these days, particularly as we navigate through issues like COVID-19, vaccinations, and mental health, community healthcare workers (CHWs) have become more vital than ever. These front line workers play an important role in developing messages and reaching out to individuals who not might otherwise receive information, resources, and education important to their health and well-being. CHWs typically live in the communities they serve so they are better able to meet people where they are to educate, inform, and encourage them in a timely manner about information that could be life-saving. They can reach community residents where they live, eat, play, work, and in houses of worship. CHWs are frontline agents of change, helping to reduce health disparities in underserved communities.

Following the “Pathways Community HUB” model, Unite WI trains and develops CHWs who use state-ofthe- art data collection software to address the social determinants of health, to improve health outcomes. Through this initiative, Unite WI serves as the “bridge” to assure optimal and efficient outcomes for both community members and service providers.

Through a unique partnership with the American Cancer Society, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing, Greenwork Milwaukee, and Unite WI, community healthcare workers have taken to the streets to engage, educate, and encourage communities of color on a variety of health related issues including COVID-19, vaccinations, food insecurity, nutrition education, active living, and many other issues.

Bria Grant

In Milwaukee, Bria Grant, the Executive Director of Unite WI, said that community health workers serve as “lay leaders” because they live in and know the community.

“Five to 20 percent of our health issues and problems can be addressed with medicine or some sort of medical intervention,” said Grant. “The other 80 percent is related to where you live, work and play. I am committed to ensuring that people have holistic wellness by not just addressing the physical, but also addressing those other areas.

“Community health workers are able to help us achieve our goals because they are from the community, know the community, understand the community, and are committed to working with us to improve the goals and outcomes that make the community healthier and safer,” said Grant.

Engaging CHWs revitalizes the notion of ancient support structures—in other words, it takes a village. Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has used community health workers to “bring improved health outcomes to some of the most impoverished places in the world.”

“This is part of the village concept that we each look after and take care of the other. And we make sure that we pass along information about how to take care of ourselves and our families. The CHWs also make sure residents know how to access resources, and how to hunt for and gather the information and resources they need,” she said.

Recently Grant developed the framework for an initiative that brings partners together to address health equity issues in a fun and interesting venue—community gardens. Damien Debuhr, Deputy Director of Programs and Operations with Groundwork Milwaukee is collaborating with Unite WI, the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee College of Nursing, the American Cancer Society, and the UnSalt’d Life, to host cooking demonstrations at three Milwaukee community gardens. In addition to promoting the merits of community gardening and watching Chef Marvin Jones’ cooking demonstrations that educate residents on how to make nutritious meals from home grown produce, CHW’s are on hand to answer questions, distribute information, and provide a variety of resources.

“Unite WI developed the pilot project with Groundworks serving as the facilitator. It is a win-win for everyone,” said Grant.

Groundwork Milwaukee has identified three ‘health hubs’ for this project. They are: We Got This Community Garden, 824 W. Ring Street; Thurston Woods Community Garden, 5974 N. 40th Street; and Uptown Crossing Community Garden, 2321-25 N. 45th Street.

“One CHW is assigned to this project and visits all three health hubs. They focus on COVID-19 issues, educating people about vaccines and information surrounding that. Our clinical partners and community partners are also canvassing other neighborhoods throughout the city to drive traffic to the community garden health hubs. They provide information and resources on health disparities such as cardiovascular disease, healthy diet, nutrition, and exercise. They also canvass the neighborhoods of all three health hubs to encourage residents to attend the cooking demonstrations and encourage them to get involved with community gardening,” said Grant.

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The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.