Harris County and Houston are home to the world’s top medical institutions, but even they need a hand in addressing the growing health issues facing today's communities. This is especially true in underserved neighborhoods with little or no access to health care resources or information.
That's where community health workers come in. These professionals help people of all ages and cultural backgrounds become better informed about health and wellness. Most importantly, they're able to meet people within their communities to build trust and understanding.
Those seeking to support their neighbors as prospective community health workers need look no further than the University of Houston. UH's Community Health Workers Initiative (CHWI) is training and certifying students and community members alike to serve as advocates for a healthier Harris County.
Recently, CHWI received a boost to its effort through a $1 million grant from Harris County Public Health. Funding will support the University's efforts in growing the number of community health workers through training and apprenticeships. Likewise, it will assist the Community Health Workers Initiative to coordinate efforts with University service projects and research activities.
"This grant is truly a win for the residents of Harris County," said Dan Price, director of UH's Community Health Workers Initiative. "Each day, our communities face new questions regarding their health and well-being. Our Community Health Workers Initiative can certainly provide some of those answers, but we can further extend our service to Houston and beyond through the support of Harris County Public Health."
According to Price, more people are realizing the value of community health workers, particularly as COVID-19 continues to threaten the county. During the earliest days of the pandemic, these workers were needed to help communicate where and how to receive the vaccine. With the annual rollout of new vaccines, they will continue to play an important role in promoting awareness of COVID-19 and mitigating its spread throughout the region.
The Harris County Public Health grant not only supports the training of future community health workers, it also is a figurative shot in the arm for the regional workforce.
Price added that there is a distinct need for certified community health workers in professional environments such as clinics, community centers and non-profit organizations. Although they are not medical professionals, certified community health workers can support those seeking guidance on where to receive care or treatment. They may also be called upon to assist in translating language within health care literature or prescriptions. Community health workers may also provide basic information on medical appointments or advice on daily wellness practices.
"Harris County Public Health (HCPH) is proud to provide this financial investment to the University of Houston to support the expansion of their Community Health Workers Initiative," said Harris County Public Health Executive Director Barbie L. Robinson. "As the Public Health Strategist for the county, HCPH recognizes the importance of developing a strong local workforce for community health workers. Our investment will directly contribute to the University's efforts to recruit, train and employ a diverse community health worker workforce that will have lasting impacts on the neighborhoods and communities within Harris County and across the region."
Through the grant's support, CHWI will work to standardize training for community health workers so they meet core competencies required by the Texas Department of State Health Services. These competencies include communication skills, interpersonal skills, service coordination skills, capacity building skills, organizational skills and a knowledge base on specific health issues. The grant also will support off-campus training to reach even more aspiring community health workers.
Since its inception in 2018, CHWI has trained certified more than 500 students and Harris County residents as community health workers. Thousands of others have participated in trainings to receive continuing education units and expand their knowledge in community health.
"The role of community health workers is to be supporting people as they navigate the health care infrastructure and help them arrive at solutions," Price said.
Through CHWI, students have applied their talents to projects supporting mental health in Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood and Cuney Homes. Other projects supported residents of Galena Park and Jacinto City. These included initiatives aimed at young parents, as well as health fairs and workshops in partnership with Community Health Centers.
Erika Manriquez was trained by CHWI and now serves as a community health worker in Houston. During her time as a student, she was part of the CHWI group working in Galena Park/Jacinto City. She said those initial interactions with community members truly prepared her for her new career path and inspired her to keep giving back to the city and county she calls home.
"From my very first day working as a community health worker, I realized how important and rewarding my job was going to be," she said. " This program has trained me from the very beginning on how to be an effective community health worker and that has allowed me to make an impact in my community and create wonderful bonds with my fellow community members. I have lived in this area for 20 years and it’s great to be able to share the knowledge I have gained through the Initiative with my community."
The ideas for these and other programming were sparked by CHWI curriculum and supported by external funding. The new Harris County Public Health grant will also lend support to future projects aimed at making a difference in Houston and Harris County.
"Through the CHWI, UH undergraduates are co-trained with community members to address health disparities, providing invaluable perspectives for their careers and additional support for the communities," said Honors College Dean Heidi Appel. "We're pleased to be part of the UH commitment to addressing differences in health care and health outcomes in our region."
CHWI is embedded within the Honors College's co-curricular program Data and Health. It has been recognized by local media and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. In addition to community health worker trainings, the initiative facilitates professional apprenticeships for its students. It also has built a network of community partners. To learn more about CHWI, visit its website.