On Wednesday, May 25, the city of Athens signed a proclamation making June 6 Community Health Worker Day.
This statewide initiative began when a group of Community Health Workers (CHWs) and CHW allies from around the state decided to bring attention and celebrate the hard-working individuals working in health care in the community who are often overlooked.
“Since Community Health Workers are a quickly growing part of the health care workforce, there has been a lot of discussion about how to educate Ohioans about them and also highlight their importance and contributions to a healthy community,” Kerri Shaw, associate professor of instruction in the College of Health Sciences and Professions and Community Health Worker lead for the OHIO Alliance for Population Health, said. “They have been critical during the COVID pandemic, for example, yet there are still people who don’t know what a CHW is.”
CHWs are frontline workers who come from the communities they serve and from all backgrounds, whether that is right out of high school, in recovery from substance abuse, have a Ph.D., or even a retired teacher. In recognizing the work they do, they are not only being honored for their profession but are being celebrated as individual community members as well.
“When I became a CHW, I discovered that I had in fact been doing this in all areas of my life already,” Kelly Lowery, a CHW for Athens County, said. “Community health has always been important to me, as is spreading healthy information. The day I became a CHW is the day I knew I found my calling.”
Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions recognizes the importance of this role in the community and offers a training program that includes 100 hours of classroom content and 130 hours of field experience. The classroom content is hybrid, so each cohort grows together as a support system but also can have the training be adaptable to their life.
Those in the program learn to take vitals, become CPR certified, explore culture and diversity and learn about their scope of practice and how to work on interprofessional care teams. Once they complete their classroom hours, they begin the experiential hours, where they practice community health work at a local agency or organization. They perform health education and outreach, informal health-related counseling, and provide client-centered services to address the social determinants of health faced by their clients such as transportation issues or other challenges to access health services. The training program is designed for adult learners and is certified by the Ohio Board of Nursing, so once they complete the requirements, participants are eligible for certification.
“At the center of the CHW model is the relationship that they have with their clients, patients or members,” Shaw explained. “They can relate to the people that they serve in a different way than other service providers can because they know the community and bring with them their own lived experience. This is the basis of a trusting relationship. They meet people where they are both physically and emotionally, so they see how environmental factors affect the health of their clients, for example. They can look in someone’s kitchen and get a hands-on understanding of their diet. CHWs are a culturally relevant, low cost/high return investment in our communities.”
Shaw first became involved in developing the CHW training program in 2015 and said with every cohort or anecdote of success, she becomes more committed to this model.
“These folks are doing great work and they are passionate about it because they come into the training program with a heart to improve the health of their neighbors,” Shaw said.
Along with the city of Athens, Jackson and Ross counties also signed the proclamation to honor CHWs.
“The work CHW’s are providing their members are life changing for many,” Lowery said. “We help create bridges to resources that can improve overall health through client teaching on chronic illnesses, creating healthy plans that are individually centered per client, and just being a positive voice.”