Recognizing the important role of community health workers

April 19, 2024 • News

By Sally Crocker

Community Health Worker Week
HSC representatives and CHW colleagues from local organizations receive a proclamation from the Tarrant County Commissioners Court declaring Community Health Worker Week in Tarrant County.

In recognition of the important role of community health workers, their leadership and their impact on communities, Community Health Worker Week 2024 is being celebrated nationally April 22-28.

The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth School of Public Health’s State Health Services Certified Community Health Worker and CHW Instructor Training Center celebrates that community health workers build healthier communities nationwide, one person at a time.

CHWs serve as a critical resource supporting public health and health literacy, especially for underserved and rural communities, improving healthcare access and patient safety, increasing preventive care, and connecting communities with important health and wellness resources. The HSC School of Public Health’s Community Health Worker Training Center provides no-cost, grant-funded certification and continuing education to strengthen the public health workforce across Texas and help empower communities. Courses run 10 hours a week for 16 weeks in an online hybrid format.

“HSC’s training center serves as an integral part of the School of Public Health’s strategic plan – IMPACT 2030: Commitment to Community – equipping graduates to bring their communities together to make things better for the whole health and well-being of those who live there,” said Dr. Teresa Wagner, School of Public Health associate professor of health administration and policy, and director of HSC’s Texas State Certified CHW and CHW Instructor training program.

“CHWs work across the life course, helping to elevate health equity, especially in underserved and rural communities that may not have resources or the ability to access them. CHWs have always been the conduit to support the U.S. Healthy People 2030 goal of building a healthier future for everyone across the nation,” she added.

The recent class of HSC community health worker graduates each have unique reasons for seeking the training and their plans for applying what they’ve learned within their communities.

Terry Flood: social science trainer, Department of Veterans Affairs

Terry Flood teaches practitioners effective communication strategies for engaging with veterans facing crises, feeling unseen, or struggling with illnesses like traumatic brain injury, mental health challenges or neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Flood is also a foster parent who advocates for vulnerable youth, and is involved in the veteran and homeless communities, focusing on mental health and disability advocacy.

“My journey has been deeply personal and shaped by a series of profound life experiences,” Flood said.

“Born into poverty as the youngest of five siblings, I witnessed firsthand the harsh realities of the health-wealth dynamic from an early age. My life was further complicated by multiple sclerosis diagnosed in 2009, enduring the loss of my father due to medical malpractice, and sustaining two traumatic brain injuries along with PTSD from combat service in Afghanistan. These experiences, coupled with a significant socioeconomic transition through military service, crystallized my understanding of healthcare’s crucial role.”

“The pivotal moment came when witnessing my father’s suffering and eventual passing, I vowed to ensure that no one else endured such pain without support,” Flood said. “This resolve led me to pivot from political science to health care management, propelling me on a path through advanced degrees and into roles where I could affect change directly.” He added to his toolbox by gaining community health worker certification to enhance his current role with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Flood’s efforts have been geared toward bridging communication, education and access gaps for marginalized and rural populations.

His future goals are to expand the presence of CHWs within the VA system, and to ultimately seek a role as a college professor or health care leader to “be the change” he wants to see and keep his promise to his father.

“I can’t save everyone, but I can help someone,” he said. “As our instructor, Frances Villafane, often says, ‘It’s about planting a seed, for a flower that you may never see blossom, knowing you did your best – some flowers grow faster than others, and that’s ok, because you laid the foundation’.”

Dianne Connery: development director, Pottsboro, TX, library

Before moving into her current position, Dianne Connery spent 13 years as the Pottsboro library director. Located in Grayson County, Pottsboro is a rural community 90 miles north of Dallas. During the pandemic, the library teamed up with HSC to provide Wi-Fi for students to continue their studies online, operated a community garden, and provided a “library” of household items that residents in need could check out. In 2021, the library partnered with HSC’s SaferCare Texas to establish a dedicated telemedicine room where community members could make appointments and visit virtually with HSC Health providers.

The library’s focus on health led to an American Heart Association partnership to provide blood pressure kits for checkout, and the library also became a meal site for youth.

Connery said she was drawn to the HSC’s CHW program for several reasons.

“I was initially inspired by a pilot project in Central Texas – Libraries for Health – that uses peer support specialists in libraries to address behavioral health issues. More and more, libraries are embedding social workers in their environment. When I learned about CHWs, it seemed like a perfect fit, and I knew HSC was a great organization to work with,” she said.

Living in a rural community was a new experience, Connery said, when she moved to Pottsboro in 2010.

“I learned that many of the organizations and services available in more populated areas just don’t exist in smaller communities. The library was on the verge of closing due to lack of funding, and I saw an opportunity to create an anchor institution to meet the needs of the unserved/underserved in Grayson County. My goal is to establish sustainable funding streams for libraries to do meaningful work,” she explained.

Connery – who received both CHW and CHW Instructor certification through HSC’s program – said that one of her most important takeaways from the training was that people often don’t know about the help available in their communities.

One of the big projects to come from her experience has been Pottsboro’s AI Librarian Chatbot, which helps connect people to needed resources if a CHW isn’t available.

“We’ve created a knowledge base of regional referrals and work closely with our area non-profits,” Connery said. “Libraries are a natural fit to host CHWs.”

Janak Patel: senior program development manager, community alliances, for the American Heart Association

Janak Patel works with community health centers and community-based organizations like Mission YMCA and Black Nurses Rock, to help implement and evaluate community-to-clinical linkages for hypertension care, especially within underserved and under-resourced communities. American Heart Association is piloting programs in Detroit, Houston, San Francisco/Oakland, San Juan and Washington DC.

Patel is also part of the American Heart Association Community Health Worker Hypertension Project, building a free hypertension course for CHWs. His organization has consulted Dr. Wagner on several aspects related to CHW education.

“Our team and I truly believe it is critical to support community health workers because this profession can build trust and promote positive health outcomes, especially in areas that are underserved,” he said.

Patel’s family immigrated to the U.S. from India. He is a second-generation Indian American, graduating with a public health degree from Baylor University Health in 2021 and working for the American Heart Association since then. He’s recently been accepted to medical school and plans to use his public health background to address the root causes of health disease outcomes.  His mother, a nutritionist who also completed her CHW training at HSC, shared the benefits of the training and encouraged him to take it as well.

Patel said he most enjoyed getting to know and learning from his instructor and fellow classmates.

“Everyone comes from a different background, but we all share the same passion to advocate and support the health and well-being of our local communities. It was amazing to have a chance to learn from people all across Texas. Some of my classmates were from Amarillo, El Paso and McAllen. I’ve learned so much more than I ever imagined because of this community,” he said.

“It was honestly one of my best decisions to enroll in this HSC CHW course,” Patel added. “This is meant for everyone, no matter the background or experience.”