Organizational health literacy at work: Community Health Workers, education, and partnership

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Across RHHD, Community Health Workers—or CHWs—are coming up with creative ways to build health literacy into their education and outreach efforts. CHWs work in RHHD’s resource centers or with groups who have unique health needs. Some multilingual CHWs work in communities where English is not a first or even second language. When these CHWs create community programs, even if the topics are radically different, they agree on several important health literacy principals:

  • Community needs and experiences should guide education efforts.
  • Language fluency is important but isn’t enough.
  • New programs are always more effective when they build off of resources and networks that already exist.

Henrico Senior CHW Elham Khairi kept these ideas in mind when she designed a family planning course for Sudanese community members early this year. Elham begins any program by focusing on the “why”: “Through asking what the needs are, we discover other needs and underlying causes. And that’s what led us to think how [something like high-risk pregnancies] could be prevented and that a health education session could help.”

Elham and her team of nurses and staff worked with Henrico’s Sudanese association to figure out what community members already knew or thought about family planning and to decide what content was most important to share. “It’s not a metaphor or buzzword to meet people where they are,” she says. Community needs and practices informed everything from content to scheduling. The team proposed a time that accommodated mothers who had to pick children up from school, and the class met in a center that the association uses often so that it was comfortable and familiar for participants.

Through the class, Elham and her team were able to share key information, like the way to access Arabic translation for services like Medicaid. Elham knows, too, that the community will work together to share information: “If I have seven women attend, those seven women are trusted by another 70 women, and they will share their knowledge and refer them to me.”

Another CHW-led program working to spread health information in the community takes place every month in the Southwood neighborhood. CHWs Adranae Mena, Mario Martinez, and Yovaldi Lamoutt run a regular car seat training class that has expanded in the last year to include a smoke detector education session. They developed the session in partnership with Cody Oliver, a Richmond Fire Department firefighter at Station 22, Truck 8.

The relationship was one that both teams were eager to begin. Cody says that his fire station is just a few blocks from Southwood: “I think of it as kind of our backyard, and it’s a high call volume for us. We want people to know who we are and to feel comfortable with us. The Resource Center already has so much respect and involvement in the community, so it seemed like a natural way to plug in.”

Similarly, the CHWs wanted ways to connect residents with first responders, particularly those who understand the needs of a predominantly Spanish-speaking community: “This relationship to me is phenomenal and I cherish it,” Adranae says, fondly calling Cody a “cool dude white boy who speaks fluent Spanish but who isn’t just bilingual—he’s entrenched in the culture.”

The class has evolved over time as the team learns more about what participants need. “The first time I just talked briefly and asked if there were any questions,” Cody recalls. ”People were a little bit shy, so I didn’t get as much interaction. Now I’ve got a collection of smoke detectors—some are old, some are broken. I pass it out to the group and ask, ‘How do you know it’s working, how do you silence it?’ It’s turned into a much more hands-on experience.”

Yovaldi reports hearing people leaving the class saying that they need to go check their home detectors because now they know what to look for. And while that’s the most immediate goal, the team is thinking long-term about what this partnership can accomplish: “The end goal is more Latinos and Spanish-speakers applying to work with us,” Cody says. “Us being out in the community is one of the ways that starts.” You can contact him at if you’re interested in Spanish-language fire safety education or outreach. And Adranae encourages anyone interested in partnering on educational opportunities at Southwood to reach out to her team at 804-230-2077.