Opinion Columns & Blogs

Cynthia Duenas: Promotoras build bridges to improve community health

Cindy Duenas, executive director of Stanislaus County Center for Human Services
Cindy Duenas, executive director of Stanislaus County Center for Human Services Submitted

When the economic recession hit, poverty rates soared in Stanislaus County, impacting our most vulnerable communities in every aspect of daily life. Perhaps most importantly, many of our communities lost or suffered diminished access to health and wellness programs.

In predominantly Latino communities, language and cultural barriers further contributed to a lack of critical preventive care and treatment. So a partnership of nonprofit and community groups sprang to life to meet these needs.

And the term “promotora” came to be known.

A promotora is a Latino community member who receives specialized training to provide basic health education to improve the well-being of residents in underserved communities. The promotoras movement is building bridges by linking neighborhood residents in need of mental health care, social services and, more recently, access to health care providers. Its mission of “servicio de corazon” – heartfelt service – is succeeding, one neighbor at a time, due to the generosity and commitment of countless volunteers, health care professionals and nonprofit organizations.

In Stanislaus County, Latinos make up nearly 45 percent of the population, and more than 40 percent of all residents speak a language other than English at home. About a fifth of the county’s residents live below the federal poverty line. So providing services and information to the roughly 100,000 residents who lack health insurance is a challenge.

Underserved communities also face disparities in mental health care and well-being. Promotoras are helping to change that by leading the way in reducing the stigma of mental health care and connecting isolated individuals to support communities.

In partnership with Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the Prevention and Early Intervention program funded by Proposition 63, the promotora network is made up of six community partners: the Center for Human Services, Sierra Vista Child and Family Services, Aspiranet, West Modesto King Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative, Oak Valley Hospital Family Support Network and Riverbank Unified School District.

The group is known as RAIZ (which translates to “root”), an acronym for Realizando Alianzas y Inspirando Sabiduria (Building Alliances and Inspiring Wisdom). Nine full-time promotoras are funded by Stanislaus County BHRS working in their respective communities, each reflecting the uniqueness of their local neighborhoods where they meet with families and help solve problems.

Promotoras speak the language and share the culture of underserved communities, so they are uniquely capable of providing culturally sensitive services based on trust and dialogue at the neighborhood and household level. From a peer educator to a health advocate and from an outreach worker to a family counselor, promotoras wear a lot of hats. But their best fit is that of a liaison between their communities and the social service organizations.

Promotoras spread knowledge of health care access and promote proper use of the health care system, such as social services agencies, behavioral health nonprofits and other sources of empowerment. Promotoras create linkages and increase referrals to other private and public services when necessary.

The recent partnership with Sutter Health has allowed the promotora network to further expand health and behavioral health services throughout the nonprofit community. Sutter Health’s Memorial Medical Center and Sutter Health Plus recently donated $100,000 to strengthen the promotoras network countywide and allow more focus on primary health access to underserved communities. Like other nonprofits, the Center for Human Services has been a key partner in collaborating with BHRS on these outreach projects.

This kind of collaboration is vital to increasing access to health services for vulnerable communities in Stanislaus County. To reach low-income households, or those disadvantaged by language or cultural differences, we embrace the generosity and commitment of organizations like Sutter Health and our nonprofit partners that call Stanislaus County home. It’s a challenging mission, but through our partnerships, we’re building strong and sturdy bridges to improve community health.

Cynthia Duenas is executive director of the Stanislaus County Center for Human Services.

Cynthia Duenas is executive director of the Stanislaus County Center for Human Services.