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Community Health Workers: Behind-the-Scenes Community Heroes

For More Information, Contact:
Communications Director Taya Jarman, APR
202-747-3541       [email protected]

By Valerie McAllister

Hampton, VA National Public Health Week is a moment when we recognize the contributions of those who work so selflessly to improve the health and well-being of our community. While we are indebted to the healthcare providers on the frontlines, I’d like to shine a light on a group of compassionate and hardworking people you may never have heard of: community health workers (CHWs).

CHWs are not clinicians, nor are they social workers. They are one part advocate, one part coach, and one part teacher. CHWs serve as invaluable connectors. They bridge the unspoken gaps between people and the services they need. For those not familiar with the healthcare systems, CHWs can help patients navigate healthcare systems.

In Virginia, about 200 certified CHWs work at free clinics, hospitals and other nonprofits. Through shared experiences of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, lived experiences and other attributes, CHWs work to connect vulnerable individuals to healthcare and safety net resources. Their work is most effective when it is integrated with a broader care team and community partners.

CHWs are making a profound difference in people’s lives and our communities. Studies show that CHWs help reduce barriers to healthcare, improve health knowledge and chronic disease management, and reduce overall medical costs.

The Institute for Public Health Innovation (IPHI) has long recognized the essential value that CHWs provide in local communities. A recent $4.3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allowed us to support the hiring and training of CHWs in the commonwealth. Having a sustainable network of CHWs across Virginia helps ensure that the safety net of support and care that is set up to assist communities to be at their healthiest state, is strong and seamless. The funds from this grant are going a long way toward doing just that.

I have had the pleasure of working with CHWs over the years. Their stories are moving and inspirational. Even small successes can make a profound difference. CHWs help people like Trudy, a senior citizen in Richmond. Trudy was excited to interview for a job as a bus monitor with Richmond Public Schools but realized she would have to take three buses to get to work by 6 a.m. Not only is taking three buses a grueling way to start the day, but the GRTC buses don’t start running until 6 a.m. Lucky for Trudy, her CHW advocate Bre Peoples, was determined to find a way. After discovering that Trudy wasn’t old enough to get transportation help through Senior Connections, Bre remembered that GRTC had a morning caravan. The morning caravan was a perfect solution that Trudy might never have discovered.

In another part of Virginia, Breanna Burke, a CHW at the Healing Hands Health Center (in Bristol, VA), secured new housing for a woman who had been kicked out of public housing over a domestic violence dispute. Breanna noted that finding housing was like being in a foreign country without a passport. The CHW was able to find the client shelter. She knew about a program that advertised, “a person could not be denied housing due to domestic circumstances.” This loophole was the gap needed for Breanna’s client. Using her resources, Breanna got the client into public housing and helped her get needed healthcare resources. As the saying goes, “all in a day’s work.”

In many situations, CHWs help identify the root causes of a person’s problems through candid conversations. Sometimes the cure or need is not a prescription or doctor’s visit. Clients might just need someone to point them in the right direction.

During the early part of the pandemic, Sonia Davidson, another CHW in Southwest Virginia, helped a husband find medical transportation for his wife who was on dialysis. By asking direct questions and listening to her client, Sonia discovered that the family needed home health assistance and support at the dialysis appointments. After hours on the phone with community resources, churches, and nonprofits, Sonia got the couple the care they needed.

CHWs are undertaking heroic work in plain sight every day. It’s time we recognize their invaluable contributions to our community and support them in and beyond National Public Health Week.

Valerie McAllister is a Senior Project Manager at the Institute for Public Health Innovation. She can be reached at [email protected].


About Institute for Public Health Innovation (IPHI)

IPHI develops multi-sector partnerships and innovative solutions to improve the public’s health and well-being across the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. IPHI’s work strengthens health systems and policy, enhances conditions that promote health, and builds community capacity to ensure equitable health opportunities. Nationally, IPHI is one of over 40 public health institutes and a member of the National Network of Public Health Institutes. For more information about IPHI, visit: and follow IPHI on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube @InstitutePHI.