Ingredients for a Healthy Future: One AmeriCorps Member, Two Cups Community Engagement, A Tablespoon of Creativity & Lots of Veggies

By Stephanie Clavijo, Community HealthCorps® Member, San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium

TLSt. Anthony’s Medical Clinic stands in the heart of the Tenderloin District, a community in San Francisco facing high rates of drug abuse, poverty, and homelessness. As a Community HealthCorps® AmeriCorps member serving with San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium, St. Anthony’s has become my home from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. Every morning, I walked up the street towards the clinic and passed by liquor stores, smoke shops, and drug dealers that plague the area. Early in my service year, I noticed how these environmental factors manifested themselves as health complications in patients I served. With little access to fresh fruits and vegetables and limited resources for exercise, it was easy to see why many of our patients were overweight and at risk for diabetes and hypertension.

As part of my service role at St Anthony’s, I was assigned to facilitate nutrition counseling and diabetes self-management sessions. After each visit, however, I began noticing a reoccurring theme: patients needed to incorporate more vegetables in their diet but were not sure how. As a health educator, I began to ask:

“How can we make healthy eating a more attainable goal?”

The answer was clear. Instead of telling patients to eat healthy, why not show them? With the support from staff, we began hosting a cooking class where participants learned affordable, easy, and nutritious recipes. I purchased ingredients from supermarkets accessible to patients and kept recipes within a $20 budget. We wanted to introduce new cuisines, but we also realized it was important to take staple foods from different cultures and show how those ingredients could be modified to create healthier alternatives.

SFCCC-Stephanie-CookingClass3What began as a class of 2-3 patients in the clinic’s break room grew to a class of 15-17 in a large classroom. From tofu ceviche to eggplant lasagna and sweet potato pancakes to whole-wheat tortillas, the class experimented a variety of recipes. Every 2 weeks, I saw the same women return to class, some even bringing family and friends. The class became a community where patients felt comfortable sharing their own health tips amongst peers and learning from one another. Some participants even shared with me their experiences testing the recipes at home, and I felt humbled knowing that the cooking continued outside of class. I realized at the end of my service year that we did more than just create a cooking class—we created an environment where patients gained autonomy over their health and felt a sense of belonging within the Tenderloin community.

This project, along with the patient relationships I’ve developed over the course of SFCCC-Stephanie-CookingClassthe past year, convinced me to apply to serve with Community HealthCorps® for a second year. Next year at St. Anthony’s, I hope to continue hosting the cooking class and even begin coordinating a cooking series for children. My ultimate goal is to have the women share their own recipes in class and explain to their peers why they believe the dish is healthy. I know I have plenty of work ahead of me, but with my patients as my motivation, I am willing to go the extra mile.

Posted in AmeriCorps, Community Health Center, community healthcorps, national service, Social Determinants of Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Serving Health Centers Through Community HealthCorps

This post was originally published on the Blog Page of the National Association of Community Health Centers, the parent organization for Community HealthCorps®, on Thursday, July 2, 2015. 

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We’re celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Community Health Center Movement with a special focus on workforce throughout the month of July. Today we begin with a closer look at Community HealthCorps®, the largest health-focused AmeriCorps program founded by NACHC  in 1995 with the mission of improving healthcare access and boosting the health center workforce.  Community HealthCorps® Program Specialist Anastasia Romanova is today’s blogger.  She interviews Ariella Camera, a Community HealthCorps® Alum and 2013 Presidential Management Fellow about her experiences in the program and life thereafter.

AR: When and where did you complete your AmeriCorps term with Community HealthCorps®?
AC: I served with Community HealthCorps® from 2009-2010, right after graduating from Pennsylvania State University, at Hudson River HealthCare (HRHCARE) in Haverstraw, NY, which is just a few miles away from where I grew up in Rockland County, NY.

AriellaCamera and Olga Escobar Honduras Global Brigades

Ariella with Olga Escobar in Honduras during her Global Brigades trip.

AR: Why did you decide to join Community HealthCorps®?
AC: I got hooked on the idea of public service in high school while volunteering at the Rockland County Department of Health with Reality Check on the anti-tobacco movement. In college I had the opportunity to volunteer internationally with Global Brigades, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering student volunteers and under-resourced communities to resolve global health and economic disparities. I considered the Peace Corps but AmeriCorps, specifically Community HealthCorps®, was a better fit because I really wanted to go back home and serve my local community. As a Biobehavioral Health major, I also wanted to apply what I learned in my studies at Penn State to make a direct impact in the health of a community and to connect my knowledge of healthcare with actual community needs.

AriellaCamera Patti Dale Americorps Habitat Humanity Service Day

Ariella and Community HealthCorps Program Coordinator Patti Dale

AR: What did you do in your service?
AC: My service site was unique because, at the time, it was transitioning from a mobile clinic to a traditional health center. This transition gave me the opportunity to assist in building a partnership with the community center across the street and with other local stakeholders within the community. Half of my time was spent directly in the health center providing patients with referrals to anything from specialty care, like vision, to community resources, like food pantries. When I wasn’t in the health center, I was at the community center where I mostly worked with the local youth and led health education classes.

AR: What do you feel is the biggest impact you made during your service?
AC: Several of my Community HealthCorps® teammates and I had the opportunity to create and facilitate a mentorship program at a local high school in Peekskill. Being able to bond with the local students after school on a regular basis was not only incredibly rewarding but gave us a chance to see the positive impact we could have on our students just from being there to listen and encourage them to aim high.

HRHcare 2009 Americorps members at a Food Drive with the Nyack Homeless ...

Ariella with her Community HealthCorps team helping at a food drive with the Nyack Homeless Project.

AR: What do you recall as the biggest challenge you had to overcome during your service?
AC: I would say my two biggest challenges also gave me an opportunity to truly understand the population I was serving and further develop my passion for increasing access to quality health care.  Throughout my service term, in order to afford rent and other expenses, I had to pick up two other part-time jobs in addition to serving full-time. Living paycheck-to-paycheck and having almost no down time, was one of toughest aspects of my service, but it definitely brought me closer to the patients I served in the health center and the realities of trying to survive off of an income that was below the poverty line. As an AmeriCorps member, I also had very basic health insurance, which made it much more difficult to access specialty care. This helped me empathize with the many people with whom I interacted and served that were in the same situation and something that made me infinitely more grateful and dedicated to my service.

AR: What do you feel is your biggest take away from your service experience?AC: I can narrow it down to two things. The first would be how critical Community Health Centers are to this country’s healthcare system. During my service, I witnessed firsthand how crucial the health center where I served was for its patients and the nearby communities. It didn’t take long to see that, if Hudson River HealthCare did not exist, the families of that community would likely be unable to meet their basic health needs and would be hard-pressed to find quality healthcare providers truly invested in their well-being. The second would be how important it is to build partnerships and leverage local stakeholders within the community to get involved with the health center initiatives and activities, in order to make a sustainable impact.

AR: How did your service affect the choices you made regarding your professional goals?
AC: Looking back now, my experience as a Community HealthCorps® Member gave me direct exposure to the community health field and allowed me to interact with and understand the needs of real life patients and community members. It most definitely helped me get to where I am today and continues to be the foundation of what drives me to stay motivated to serve.

AriellaCamera USAID ASSIST Project Ivukula Health Center QI Team, Uganda...

Ariella during her USAID Global Health Bureau assignment.

After Community HealthCorps®, I wanted to continue in public service as a government employee and started working in the clinical psychiatric research department for the Boston Veteran Affairs Healthcare System. Through my participation in the Boston AmeriCorps Alums chapter, I learned about the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, and pursued my MA in Sustainable International Development. In my second year of graduate school I decided to apply to the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF).

In my first year as a PMF, I had the unique opportunity to support the development and implementation of the Federally Facilitated Marketplace as a part of the Affordable Care Act rollout. Recently, I finished a 5-month rotation with USAID Global Health Bureau focusing on strengthening health care systems and improving quality of care internationally. It has been an unbelievable year to say the least; I felt like I came full circle, getting to be a part of healthcare history in the making and fulfilling a passion for increasing access and strengthening health care systems.

*The views expressed above belong solely to Ariella Camera, and do not represent the official views of the federal government.

Posted in AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps Alums, community healthcorps, National Association of Community Health Centers, national service, Workforce Development | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Serving for a Worthy Cause

By Nicole Hanlon, 2013-2014 Community HealthCorps® Member, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers

In honor of this Saturday’s National HIV Testing Day, Community HealthCorps® would like to shine a light on the great work our AmeriCorps members do to promote HIV/AIDS awareness & testing and provide overall support to individuals affected by or living with HIV/AIDS. The story featured below, written by Community HealthCorps® alum Nicole Hanlon, demonstrates one of many scenarios in which our AmeriCorps members provide crucial support and guidance to an individual facing a potentially life-changing moment tied to getting tested for HIV.

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2013-2014 Community HealthCorps®- Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers Team (Nicole pictured far right).

Over the course of the past five months of service with the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, I have educated, tested, and counseled a number of individuals on HIV in a variety of settings. This is nothing that I ever would have imagined I would have been a part of, but am lucky that I have the opportunity to do so. Coming into this experience, I knew very little about HIV, but through reading, teaching, and talking to individuals living with the virus, I have learned a lot. I am able to see firsthand the stigma and fear that is associated with HIV/AIDS, much of which, to me, seems to be present because of the lack of education around the topic. Being able to make a dent in potentially eliminating this stigma, even on the smallest scale, is something I have been passionate about in the past with other topics and am happy I have been given the opportunity to do with HIV.

Recently, I encountered a woman who further reinforced that the service I am doing is worthwhile. She walked into the testing room, and I could see that she was hesitant about getting tested. Her movement was slow, her posture tense, and her face said it all. The amount of fear in this woman’s eyes was not something you see too often. Upon inviting her to sit down, and before doing the test, we talked about her reasons for getting tested and addressed her evident, overwhelming trepidation. She broke down. I was informed of her previous behaviors and learned of an incident that occurred last summer: the main source of her fear. Last June she found herself in a situation that led to her being raped by two men that she did not know. After a trip to the hospital, it was brought to her attention that the possibility is there that she could have been exposed to a number of different things, one of which being HIV. But she did not want to know. What if she was exposed? What does that mean for her future? Her family? Her children? She didn’t want her life to be cut short.

It took over 6 months to build up the courage to face what had been haunting her every day and finally get tested. Once the test was given, we waited. This must have been the longest 15 minutes of this woman’s life. She kept repeating, “I did it. I cannot believe I did it,” along with “I just don’t want it to come back positive.” After a couple of minutes, she decided she wanted to wait somewhere away from the test and asked if I could call her back in when the results were ready.

At the end of the 15 minutes, I was happy to tell her results: non-reactive. She broke down crying once again as I joked, “I’m guessing those are tears of joy.” She smiled and laughed for the first time in the 20 minutes I was with her. A weight was lifted off her shoulder that day, a weight that had been crushing her for half a year previously. She thanked me for making her feel comfortable, gave me a hug, and left the room—not with fear as was the case upon entering, but with relief and joy. Seeing and experiencing this has reinforced that I am doing something rewarding, worthwhile, and am making a difference, even if it is in just a small population. You never know what may start a chain reaction.

Posted in community healthcorps, HIV Awareness, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, National HIV Testing Day | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment