For Dennis Hernandez, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington, a successful Community Health Worker (CHW) wears a variety of hats.
“You have this friend, you have this health professional, you have this lawyer,” she said. “You mix them all together, and you get a community health worker. They know how to navigate the health care system, and even if they don’t have all the answers, they know where to find them. They are community advocates.”
In addition to her role at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Hernandez serves as Executive Director of the DFW-CHW Association, which provides development and networking opportunities for community health staff and community health worker trainers across North Texas. CHWs provide health education and culturally appropriate information, training and social support. They also build links between the communities and the local health departments that serve them, especially for groups that have traditionally been excluded or marginalized.
Health insurance companies use community health workers to teach individuals about health insurance, and hospital systems throughout their organizations use them to help patients. CHWs have intimate relationships with the communities they serve, and design information, resources, and services accordingly. They are also natural helpers and have an innate desire to serve others, Hernandez said.
“We’ve seen this especially during COVID, when community health workers have stepped up and addressed those urgent needs of the community,” she said. If the family needs groceries, we will find groceries for them. If they needed help downloading and learning how to work with Zoom for their children’s classes, there were community health workers who did because they saw the need. ”
There are more than 4,000 certified community health workers in Texas. One of them is UTA Alumna Ashley Torres. She uses her CHW certification to assist community members on a daily basis, connect patients with outpatient care before they are discharged from the hospital, guide them through financial assistance for hospital bills and find specialists who will help cover treatment costs, among other tasks.
Torres said she comes from an underserved community and wants to be what her family and community don’t have: an advocate.
“Now that I finish my studies, I know how to be resourceful,” she said. “I wanted to give back to the communities that were similar to the ones that made me feel the person I am now.”
Torres says the public health courses she took at UTA taught by Erin Carlson, professor of clinical kinesiology, had the biggest impact on her at school. She applied what she learned during the courses in Epidemiology, Leadership and Legislation to achieve her career goals.
“I appreciate her passion and ability to make anything fun in class. I even told her right before I graduated, ‘Anything she learns or comes out of you, I love,’” Torres said. I care more.”