First Cohort of the Community Health Worker Academy: Teresa Morales

First Cohort of the Community Health Worker Academy: Teresa Morales

Teresa Morales, from San Fernando, Calif., has a calling to serve. This has taken shape in many different forms: as a big sister helping her mom take care of four younger siblings, as a chaplain in her church visiting jails and orphanages in Mexico and feeding the homeless of the San Fernando Valley, as a single mother to four beautiful children each with their own unique needs, and most recently as a Community Health Worker providing support to individuals experiencing mental health challenges and homelessness.

Teresa’s traditional Mexican upbringing instilled a sense of high morals and respect for others. However, she also describes her very low-income childhood as dysfunctional where alcohol abuse was prevalent. She experienced struggles with depression and anxiety and has firsthand knowledge of the stigma associated with mental health issues in the Latino community. As a mother and advocate for a child with special needs, she also has faced discrimination from others who do not understand her family’s situation. 

These life experiences drew her to help others who face similar struggles. In 2016, she participated in Providence’s volunteer Health Promoter training, which open doors to additional volunteer opportunities in Providence’s Senior Health program and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Promoter program. 

In late 2020, amid juggling her home life, multiple jobs, the death of her father and material losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had the opportunity to gain a formal certification from Providence and Charles R. Drew University’s Community Health Worker Academy. This newly launched workforce development program, is 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. The Academy provides participants like Teresa with a paid six-month internship that consists of five weeks of a standards-based curriculum that teaches the fundamentals of a Community Health Worker’s roles, skills and responsibilities, followed by 21 weeks of on-the-job training in hospital and clinical settings throughout Los Angeles. During that segment, interns continue to meet weekly with Providence’s CHW Academy program manager for job coaching and guidance, as well as monthly gatherings facilitated by CDU to share experiences and lessons learned with other interns.

“This sounded like a wonderful opportunity. I had never had any official certificated training and had never had a chance to work in a clinical setting. It seemed like my whole life was geared toward this (opportunity),” Teresa shares. 

Teresa’s on-the-job training took place at one of Providence’s long-time partners, the San Fernando Community Health Center. “I was given the privilege of working on a new behavioral health grant that focuses on people experiencing homelessness who use the Emergency Department for primary and behavioral health services. This program provides them with a navigator, links them with appropriate services and walks them through the system so they can be connected with services and use the Emergency Department for what it’s for – for emergency services,” Teresa shares. In her first two months on the job, Teresa created a new workflow for how the clinic sees and serves patients experiencing homelessness. Teresa’s supervisor at the clinic, Heidi Lennartz, LCSW, FACHE, is the chief operating officer at the health center. Heidi was very open to Teresa’s suggestions and supportive of implementing new clinical processes for connecting these patients to post-discharge services. 

Heidi shared, “Teresa was assigned to be the navigator for the highly complex and challenging Recuperative Care Center for those experiencing post-hospital homelessness and bridging help for those with mental health needs. She was immediately responsible for achieving specific grant targets and milestones due within eight weeks. By engaging staff of multiple organizations, she learned data-tracking, appointment scheduling, outreach and engagement with a large healthcare facility and ultimately, successfully linking the targeted type and number of clients to the clinic, in the desired timeframe! Great work, Teresa!”

Now, the health center provides patients who experience homelessness with critical follow-up services in less than a week of being discharged from the Emergency Department. Teresa shared, “The (CHW Academy) training really covers so much and gave me so much more knowledge and tools. Everything I’ve had to do so far in my job at the clinic was covered in the Academy. The role playing really encourages people to come out of our comfort zone and practice all the skills we were learning in the Academy. All of the skills and techniques, like active listening, I learned in the CHWA and I’m applying now in my job.” 

Teresa credits her life experiences with helping her understand and relate to her patients. She says she puts herself in her patients’ shoes and thinks about the steps that need to be taken to make their situation less traumatic. Teresa shared, “When you’re dealing with someone with behavioral health issues, they already are vulnerable; now you add the component of them being homeless they have a lot more challenges. Only because I’ve struggled myself with depression and anxiety, I understand when you are in that situation it’s so easy for people to judge you, but they don’t understand that the smallest little task to you, like just getting up from bed, is huge. It really is.” 

Teresa’s upbringing instilled a sense of hard work and determination to persist despite the many challenges she faced throughout her lifetime. Now, with the support of her children and her mother, Teresa plans to continue her call to serve others who struggle. The CHW Academy reinforced her resolve to further her education in the field of behavioral and mental health and she looks forward to continued service to individuals experiencing homelessness. At the end of the 6-month internship Teresa was offered a position at the health center, but she decided to continue her journey as a full-time Mental Health Advocate for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. She shares, “At times you need someone to hold your hand and really carry you through it before you can get back on your feet. I tell them, ‘You can do this. It’s a dark place but you can do it. Hold my hand and I will walk you out to the light”.