The Health Ambassadors pose with the City Manager

LEI Health Ambassadors honored by City Council and CDC for outreach to underserved communities

April 19, 2022
By: Nancy Sheehan

Worcester State’s Latino Education Institute was recently honored by the Worcester City Council for its extensive outreach efforts that have benefited thousands of residents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Council gave special recognition to LEI’s ‘Health Ambassadors,’ a group of eight Worcester State University students from the community who have worked to promote health through outreach to and advocating for underserved and underrepresented populations. The LEI Health Ambassadors group was formed at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in collaboration with UMass Memorial Health. Later, LEI received a $312,513 federal REACH grant (Racial & Ethnic Approaches to Community Health), administered through the City of Worcester Department of Public Health.

The grant aims to promote awareness around health issues including nutrition, physical fitness, and breastfeeding to address the elevated incidence of conditions like diabetes, and heart diseases among Latinos, and the Black community.

The Health Ambassadors handing out PPE kits at an event

The LEI Health Ambassadors hand out PPE kits at a recent event.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, however, LEI had to quickly add a Covid-19 response to its repertoire.

“We had to quickly pivot and also become health advocates,” Hilda Ramirez, LEI executive director, says. “When you’re talking about vulnerable communities like the Latino community, you really have to address health equity along with education because you can’t learn if you’re not well or experiencing trauma.”

An official proclamation gratefully recognizing LEI’s contribution was presented by Mayor Joe Petty at the April 5 City Council meeting. The Council voted to issue the proclamation because they had been impressed with LEI’s efforts when the Health Ambassadors gave a presentation about their work at a Council meeting a week earlier at City Hall.

At the earlier meeting, the REACH program and LEI were acknowledged in a video specially recorded for the occasion by Dr. Terry O’Toole, Chief of the Program Development & Evaluation branch in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the CDC- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which oversees the national REACH program.

“The secret sauce with the REACH program is that the solutions for effectively addressing gaps in health by race and ethnicity are locally driven and culturally tailored and Worcester has done this well,” O’Toole said. “Despite the incredible challenges of COVID your REACH program has risen above the challenges to make a real difference for those who need it the most.”

A small child hugging a health ambassador around her knees

A child hugs Claudia Oliveira de Paiva at a Health Ambassadors’ event.

From the pandemic’s earliest days, LEI joined the outreach teams as trusted messengers for underserved communities, working closely with UMass Memorial Healthcare and Worcester Department of Health & Human Services Commissioner Dr. Matilde Castiel to combat misinformation about the virus and to provide masks, hand sanitizer, help with testing appointments. A milestone was reached with the more than 150,000 PPE kits that have been handed out since the pandemic began. When the COVID vaccines were approved, LEI Health Ambassadors assisted in providing information in multiple languages, and vaccination sign-up opportunities across the City of Worcester.

“What an incredible partnership we have had with LEI,” Dr. Castiel said. “I am incredibly grateful and honored to have worked with them from testing to vaccinations. They were there to help us run clinics and to outreach into the community. They brought people to our clinics and helped us with translation and made those who came for services feel welcome. If there was one positive thing about Covid, it is the amazing relationships that arose during these times and certainly LEI has been an asset to us and our community.”

Claudia Oliveira De Paiva ’23, an international student from Brazil was teaching a class of middle-school Latina girls for the LASOS – the Latina Achievers in Search for Success program at WSU, when she first got word of the impending school shutdowns in March 2020.

A health ambassador answers questions at an outdoor event

Health Ambassadors are available to answer questions and provide information at a variety of health events throughout the city.

“A classroom that had been filled with laughter and joy suddenly became a classroom filled with uncertainty and fear,” she said. “Everyone wondered, ‘What will happen to us? What will happen to my family?’ At that moment, as a Latina myself, I gathered all the strength I never imagined I had to start an overwhelming, yet critically important path to fight for health and racial equity.’” As a founding member of the Health Ambassadors, she helped the group to pivot to an all-encompassing pandemic response.

“Now, two years later, I am proud to say that because of the ongoing efforts of the Latino Education Institute’s Health Ambassadors, that fear we all felt initially has turned to hope,” she said.

“I am so impressed with the relentless work of Claudia Oliveira de Paiva and the Health Ambassadors for starting this work in the beginning of the pandemic and to be here two years later continuing to provide an amazing support to our community,” Ramirez said. “I am proud to have been at the LEI during this time.”

The entire Worcester community has benefitted from LEI’s wide-ranging health outreach through the REACH program, especially its successful COVID response, the CDC’s O’Toole said in the video.

“These actions and many others accomplished by the LEI & REACH program in Worcester have made a real difference – and a lasting difference – for those who need it the most,” he said.

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