First Cohort of the Community Health Worker Academy: Kristy Torres
Kristy Torres, from Lawndale, Calif., remembers visiting the County’s health offices when she was growing up to help her mom fill out applications for CalFresh and Medi-Cal. As a single mother working a minimum-wage job, Kristy’s mom relied on these public benefits to help the family secure the health and social benefits they needed to make ends meet.
“I would have to translate the application because my mom doesn’t speak English well. I would read the application and make sure that my mom understood each question and could answer it correctly. I knew that if she misunderstood the question and answered incorrectly it could mean that we wouldn’t qualify and receive the benefits we needed,” Kristy shared.
Several years later, Kristy never would have imagined the lessons she learned helping her mom would prepare her to participate in the inaugural cohort of Providence and Charles R. Drew University’s (CDU) Community Health Worker Academy. The Academy is a workforce development program funded by California’s Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, California Community Reinvestment Grants Program and is designed to create long-term job placements in high-need communities.
Community Health Workers (CHWs) are valuable members of the health care team that act as a familiar, trustworthy source of help for the priority populations they serve. They share a common language and cultural experience with the patients and clients they serve, and have faced the same barriers, stigmas and fears in accessing the healthcare system.
In late 2020, Kristy’s sister gave her a flyer for the Academy, which was recruiting its first cohort. Kristy had never heard of a Community Health Worker, had no idea what the program was about, nor did she know if she was even qualified for the role. Her curiosity, and encouragement from her sister, led to her submitting an application and ultimately being selected to be part of the first cohort of 13 interns for the Academy.
Kristy credits the Academy’s curriculum and career coaching with making her more confident in advocating for herself and her clients.
“I’m very shy and tend to stay quiet to absorb everything. I tend to not ask questions. Sometimes staying quiet isn’t the right thing. And those emotions that get stuck in you when you feel you can’t talk, drain you. The (Academy’s) courses helped me learn and figure out a way to let some of that go.”
The Academy is a paid six-month internship that consists of five weeks of a standards-based curriculum that teaches the fundamentals of a Community Health Workers’ roles, skills and responsibilities, followed by 21 weeks of on-the-job training in hospital and clinical settings throughout Los Angeles.
Kristy’s job training took place at Providence’s Community Health Insurance Program where she learned to provide outreach, education, navigation support and enrollment assistance for community members that are eligible for Cal Fresh, Medi-Cal and Covered CA. The rigorous CHW Academy curriculum helped Kristy become more secure about herself and as a result, more effective at her job.
“When the instructors would ask questions in the Academy, I’d be so nervous. I realized it’s OK to not know everything and feel iffy about it and then ask questions to see if you know the stuff or not. In this line of work, to advocate for people you are helping means that you have to ask the questions. You have to be a bit assertive to get the results for your clients.”
Unique parts of the Academy are the weekly one-on-one check-ins with Providence’s CHW Academy program manager Rosie Salazar, whom Kristy called her “work coach,” as well as monthly reunions with her cohort, led by CDU. The individual weekly check-ins with the “work coach” allow Kristy to talk about her role as a CHW and how she felt in the work setting and receive feedback and advice to continuously improve her performance.
Ms. Salazar shares, “I have observed and continue to observe Kristy growing very much with her confidence levels in her communication skills, roles, and responsibilities. I am beyond proud of her for how well she has adapted as a CHW and how she is prospering in the profession.”
These interactions provide constant feedback for Kristy and help her feel supported in her field placement. The group gatherings allow the interns to share their experiences in the field and learn from each other’s points of view. Kristy shares, “It feels like a blessing. It brings all these people together. We became friends. We’re not in the same place, doing the same things, but we are all coming together and helping each other. We respect each other’s opinions.”
With her childhood experience of helping her mom as an inspiration and the skills-based training provided by the CHW Academy, Kristy continues to help children and adults in the South Bay region of Los Angeles enroll in and navigate the public benefits for which they are eligible. Upon completion of the 6-month internship, Kristy was offered and accepted a full-time permanent position as a Community Health Worker with Providence’s Community Health Insurance Program where she can continue to grow and serve her local community.
Her advice to others considering a job as a CHW?
“If it comes to you, take the opportunity. It’s a great experience. The Academy doesn’t only teach you about the CHW world, but also helps on a personal level. I’ve never been in a program where they talk about bettering yourself and taking care of yourself, since that will make you better in the workplace. Usually, it’s like here’s what you have to do, go do it. The Academy was a godsend to me because it’s helping me grow in my career and personally. I’m going to see how far I can go to help as many people as I can.”