By JANICE BEETLE
Each year, Deirdre Griffin and her staff team in the New American Program of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts welcome hundreds of new refugees into greater Springfield from countries such as Somalia, Nepal, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Case workers meet these vulnerable refugees at the airport and have 90 days to guide them in everything from accessing much-needed medical care to securing housing, jobs, schooling for their children and financial assistance.
These professionals are serving in a new and emerging role -- that of the community health worker. They're focused on preventative care, holistic health and making community connections that support good health.
In January, Holyoke Community College became the first area institution to unveil a Community Health Worker certificate program for the profession. Before that, there was no structured preparation available in the area that also granted college credits to participants; these professionals and the organizations that employed them instead relied solely on on-the-job training and supervision.
This is why Griffin and four of her colleagues jumped at the opportunity to be among the first of HCC professor Janet Lavin Grant's students in a class called "Core Competencies for the Community Health Worker," which is currently being taught at three locations in the region.
"The class is catching our staff at the right place," said Griffin, director of the New American Program, who is one of 15 students in the class on the HCC campus. "There are people doing elements of community health work who haven't had the professional rubrics to rely on. So many people who are doing this kind of work are doing it hands-on, as they go."
About the Community Health Worker program
In addition to the class Griffin is taking on campus, Grant's class is also being offered in Worcester, through the Worcester Department of Public Health, and at Baystate Health in Springfield. It is the central offering of HCC's brand new and innovative Community Health Worker Certificate program and also can be a component of its associate degree in Foundations of Health. The certificate program is funded as part of a $20 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. Grant spent a large part of the past two years developing the program in the Foundations of Health program, which is part of HCC's Division of Health and Natural Sciences.
Working first as a part-time consultant, getting started in 2014, Grant studied the pending state regulations and also talked to dozens of employers in the region to discern the kind of education and training they expect to find in a community health worker. She said the new offering she created supports the vision of her department chair, Rebecca Lewis, to see HCC training people in community and public health professions.
"HCC is out there in front in terms of this movement," Grant said, noting it is so new that the state Department of Public Health doesn't currently have a means for official certification; but once the state approves pending regulations, HCC can apply for official state approval of its program. Once students get more work hours logged, they can apply for certification through the state.
Durrell J. Fox, a community health worker with over 25 years of experience, applauds HCC for swiftly and completely entering the movement.
"I believe HCC may be the first institution of higher education in the area to establish a community health worker certificate program that includes all of our state's core competencies," said Fox, who is also a technical advisor for the state Department of Public Health's Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund and co-leader of the class with Grant. "HCC was not even on the radar screen, or even involved in the 'movement' until recently, and they jumped in with both feet."
To earn a certificate, students must take other required classes, including Health 201: Essential Topics for Community Health Workers, which covers prevalent diseases such as asthma, hypertension, diabetes and substance abuse, and they must complete a 125-hour practicum, which will help satisfy a state requirement for 2,000 hours of work experience.
Community health workers start at $14 to $22 per hour, Grant said. At the same time, students can continue on to earn an associate degree in Foundations of Health. With that two-year degree in hand, they could advance to a four-year school and earn a bachelor's and master's degrees in an area such as health care administration or public health.
What is a community health worker?
Now the faculty/community health coordinator at HCC, Grant explains that, unlike direct health care workers such as nurses and physical therapists, who provide hands-on patient care, community health workers are more focused on prevention and eliminating barriers to good individual and community health. Their titles run the gamut from "harm reduction worker" to "patient navigator," "care coordinator" or "health outreach worker," and they work for federally designated health centers, social service agencies, behavioral health agencies, health insurers, community based organizations, and in some hospitals.
Grant explained that community health workers step in when a community at large has a health issue, such as a barrier to healthy food, in the case of the Mason Square section of Springfield, where there is no supermarket or access to fresh fruits and vegetables for residents who don't drive, or when an individual demonstrates an inability to access care. If a woman consistently misses her appointment for a mammogram, for instance, Grant said a community health worker might look into her case and discover it's impossible for the woman to get there because she is struggling with her housing situation, and her child has asthma and is frequently in the local ER.
"Community health workers look at what's going on in a person's life and assist them in getting the resources they need to take better care of their own health and chronic health conditions," Grant said.
Community health workers also get involved in advocacy and social change, she said.
In the classroom
Griffin said the decision to enroll five employees in the class was a big step in professional development for her team: "What we're hoping is that those who are taking the class will be able to bring some information back to the others." Her staff members -- one of whom may enroll in the certificate program to support her desire to advance into a supervisory role -- are learning such things as how to assess needs, communicate, bridge culture gaps and advocate for community members.
Grant said she covers 10 core competencies in all, including outreach, communication, education to promote behavioral change, documentation and professional conduct.
"It's an excellent class," Griffin said. "Our work is so demanding, so having the opportunity to step back and think about the underpinning of what you're doing strengthens how you act in the field."
Felicia Diaz, 38, of Holyoke, is another student in the class who enrolled in the full certificate program in January. Previously, Diaz worked for seven years for Attorney Philip Lauro of Springfield, serving as a receptionist; because she is Puerto Rican and speaks fluent Spanish, she also translated for Lauro's Spanish-speaking clients, who got attached to her.
When Lauro retired at the end of 2015, Diaz was out of work, and sought employment counseling through CareerPoint in Holyoke, where she was encouraged to return to school. Because Diaz learned while translating for Lauro's clients that she worked extremely well with people, and they appreciated her capacity for compassion, she chose to focus on becoming a community health worker.
"I already feel the connection to helping my community," she said. "I like to help people. I can't see somebody and not want to help them or guide them in a way that doesn't insult them."
Diaz hopes to use her certificate to get a job in which she can help young people and families work through their problems. "I see a lot of broken families, and coming from a really good family...it affects us," she said.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Susannah Teluw, a Foundations of Health major from Amherst, is taking "Core Competencies for the Community Health Worker" at HCC this semester. (Right) Co-teacher Durrell J. Fox makes a point during a new Community Health Worker class at HCC. (Thumbnail) HCC professor Janet Grant leads an introductory class for students training to be community health workers.