Social Work Professor Invests in Community Health

Labor pains didn’t stop Elsa Mijares from attending the weekly promotora de salud, or community health worker, class at UTEP’s Health Sciences and Nursing Building on July 27.

Mijares, who was nine months pregnant with her second child, was scheduled to lead the class in a discussion about sexual reproductive health when she began experiencing contractions early that morning. “Addressing Social and Health Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence,” is a community-based participatory research project in the College of Health Sciences that prepares migrant women and men to become state certified community health workers. Twenty-eight participants will graduate from the program on Aug. 19. Photo by Ty Navarrette. “Addressing Social and Health Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence,” is a community-based participatory research project in the College of Health Sciences that prepares migrant women and men to become state certified community health workers. Twenty-eight participants will graduate from the program on Aug. 19. Photo by Ty Navarrette.

“I’ve been coming to class throughout most of my pregnancy and I said to my baby, ‘We have to finish,'” Mijares said in Spanish.

Since March, Mijares and 27 other participants have met every Saturday at UTEP as part of a community-based participatory research project titled, “Addressing Social and Health Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence,” at the College of Health Sciences.

Funded by the Hispanic Health Disparities Research Center (HHDRC), the project trains migrant women and men to become state certified community health workers who will conduct outreach in underserved communities while raising awareness about intimate partner violence and sexual and reproductive health. 

For the past 18 weeks, students have been trained on a wide range of topics that include intimate partner violence; sexual and reproductive health; chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity; HIV/AIDS and advocacy; the Affordable Health Care Act; health literacy; technology; and nutrition by UTEP faculty members, Familias Triunfadoras in San Elizario – a community-based organization with a mission to empower women in colonias – and representatives from other community organizations.

Before they can be certified by the State of Texas as community health workers, students must complete 250 hours of volunteer community service.

After dedicating so much time and effort to her studies, childbirth could not stop Mijares from graduating with her classmates in August. 

By 10:30 that morning, she finished her presentation and was on her way to the hospital, where she gave birth to a healthy baby boy a few hours later.

The following Saturday, with her eight-day-old son Mathew wrapped in a green receiving blanket, Mijares was back in class. 

“I want the best for my children,” said Mijares, as she rocked her newborn son in her arms. “There is a lot of ignorance in the community about health, social service programs and domestic violence. The best thing that we can do is to educate ourselves, know our rights and know what programs are available.”

Mijares and her classmates will complete their first step to becoming community health workers when they graduate from the program at 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19, in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building.

The goal of the promotora de salud program is to create a cadre of linguistically and culturally competent health advocates in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border to promote intimate partner violence prevention and reproductive health among vulnerable populations such as minority women and immigrants.

 “The things that (these community health workers) have learned, they are responsible for transmitting it and sharing with others,” said Assistant Social Work Professor Eva Moya, Ph.D. “That’s what promocion (promotion) is all about. It’s fabulous that you’re learning. It’s great for your sense of confidence but it’s not for you to keep; it’s for you to share.”

The training was developed in conjunction with Familias Triunfadoras and was made possible by a $15,000 grant from the HHDRC that Moya and Silvia Chavez Baray, Ph.D., a lecturer in the social work department, received in February. The researchers hosted two focus groups with existing community health workers and health care professionals to form the content that was used to train the students. 

Only one of the 28 students is male and about half of the women were recruited from last year’s Photovoice project, Voices and Images: Migrant Women, Domestic Violence, Sexual and Reproductive Health. The exhibit features photos from 22 migrant women who used disposable cameras to document their stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

“Most of these are women, when they came in, they were very quiet because they have not really sat in a classroom of this nature and in this structure,” Moya said. “But now they’re asking questions, they’re leading discussions, they’re presenting their Power Points, and sometimes they challenge the speakers, because they have a lot of experience.”

Marta Villaseñor is among the women who put their lives on display for the Voices and Images project, which she credits for giving her the confidence to continue her education. Villaseñor took education courses at a university in Mexico and worked as a teacher’s assistant in California, but when she moved to Texas a couple of years ago, her credits did not transfer.

For Villaseñor, becoming a community health worker is an opportunity to teach others about breaking the cycle of intimate partner violence.  

She volunteers in a women’s shelter, where she is helping residents obtain their GED. She is also passing along information about women’s health services, including preventive exams such as mammograms. 

“These are things that I've been learning,” said Villaseñor, who recently earned her GED and expects to start at El Paso Community College in the fall. “As a woman, I feel that they are important for the community and it's something that I want to pass along to other women because it's something that was passed on to me.” 

To enhance their training, participants learned about the health and social services programs that are available in the community from the organizations that provide those resources.

Presenters included representatives from the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Inc., which discussed the legal rights of survivors of intimate partner violence, protective orders, safety plans and the services available to refugees and migrants. Students received information on women’s health and health education from the Women’s Health Center at University Medical Center (UMC), nutrition counseling from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and learned about sexual assault trauma intervention from STARS: Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Services and crime victims’ rights from Crime Victims Services at UMC.

They also received training from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Diabetes Prevention Program.

The Alliance of Border Collaboratives conducted an eight-hour training on the use of technology. The University Library set up a web portal for community health workers, which includes links on health information.

“Here we have an example of how the University can come together with Familias Triunfadoras and partner up with our local agencies and make the most out of the skills and talents we have and use the technology in our favor,” Moya said.

Once they graduate, participants are expected to advocate on behalf of the organizations that helped prepare them, either as volunteers or employees. These include community clinics, health fairs and Ventanilla de Salud, a health collaborative between UTEP and the Consulate General of Mexico in El Paso that will connect people with health-related resources while providing health screenings and education.

“The objective is that (these community health workers) come into direct contact with the organizations so they have access to the materials they need (pamphlets, brochures) without having to depend on us,” said Baray, the Ventanillas De Salud coordinator.

For Moya, the HHDRC grant has proven to be a mine of potential research. She hopes to develop an intervention that she can use to continue to train community health workers on intimate partner violence and reproductive health.

“We don’t envision this ending,” Moya said. “This investment is long term, which is precisely what we wanted. The journey to transformation has just begun.”