SEAHEC’s Healthy Farms Program was founded as a community health initiative in 2009. The initiative’s goal is to reduce health disparities in southeast Arizona’s underserved rural communities by improving access to health information and services. SEAHEC’s strategy is driven by the Arizona Area Health Education Center (AZAHEC) healthcare workforce development model, which includes placing health professions students in rural internships and the recruitment and training of community members to become Community Health Workers (CHW.)
SEAHEC’s Healthy Farms Program created a small-scale farmworker oriented community health worker team. Community Health Workers (CHWs), are also known in Spanish as Promotoras de Salud. CHWs are defined by the American Public Health Association as “frontline public health workers who are trusted members of and/or having an unusually close understanding of the community served. This trusting relationship enables the worker to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.”
SEAHEC recruited members of the Winchester Heights neighborhood to train and work with SEAHEC public health interns from the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health (MEZCOPH.) They collaborated on developing a training manual based on community identified health issues, and organized a series of workshops based on the new manual. The team then shared what they had learned with community members by organizing home visits, workshops and informal information sessions in the work place.
In 2013, SEAHEC launched the first Farm Based community health worker team in Cochise County
The team was launched in 2013 and since then, CHW efforts have expanded from disseminating health information to helping the community build its collective capacity to establish health supporting infrastructure. SEAHEC CHWs and interns collaborated with Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc (CCHCI). to establish a health services referral system. Then they worked with SEAHEC to install bus shelters for local school children and organized the community’s first public health fair. But a persistent barrier to engaging the entire community of 600 in the process of working to improve community health has been lack of space for people to assemble, and as expectations grew for more participation and the desire for concrete and lasting changes to community infrastructure, the residents requested SEAHEC’s help to develop and construct a community center, so they could engage in larger scale projects.
Construction planning began in 2017 along with a concurrent Community Environmental Health Assessment (CEHA) project which provided data for community health education topics and for the community to use to prioritize and address health issues. As construction progresses, we are also engaged in a subsidiary project to improve drinking water quality, one of the top community priorities identified in the 2017 CEHA. Other identified priorities include:
- Neighborhood security
- Work environment
- Air quality
These priorities are a stepping stone to building community capacity to collaborate on acquiring, and managing public infrastructure. The foundation of this capacity will be an expansion in focus for CHW training and community education from health topics to include community advocacy and organizing skills, which residents will develop through collaborating to address priorities identified in the CEHA, and learning to manage and sustain their new community center. SEAHEC has helped residents establish Community Action Committees, whose leaders will be trained community health workers. Each committee which will focus on a key health priority as well as share in the responsibilities of running the community center, providing health education and fostering a culture of active living focused on the new playground. The playground is a core feature of the new community center and was named “We Heart Children-Burris Children’s Memorial Park” in memory of Jake & Jessica Burris, both of whom died of a young age due to heart conditions. Their sister Michelle Jeanee Burris raised nearly $2,000 through GoFundMe for playground equipment for the Winchester Heights community.
The completed community center building was inaugurated in August of 2018. Since then, the community’s transformation has been remarkable. A fenced playground, a community garden, a soccer field, a sturdy, bright blue building in the center of the neighborhood, have become a magnet and generator of social activity. Once known for its lack of infrastructure and services, Winchester Heights now hosts a wide variety of activities at the new community center.
In a recent survey of residents and agency representatives, SEAHEC found that the community center has made a significant improvement in the quality of life for Winchester Heights residents.
“The Community Center provides for a place to learn new health skills and to receive support, services and resources. For all of these reasons, the Community Center has been a real “game changer” for the residents,” said a representative of one of our community partners, recently.
Through community health worker recruitment and training, and helping residents found a community center, we have built critical infrastructure needed to sustain positive change. In 2019 we will place the final foundation stones in this platform for sustainable development. Our next step is to help the residents of Winchester Heights found 501c3 organization to manage the community center. With incorporated status comes eligibility for federal funding, the capacity to collectively acquire and manage funding and resources for the benefit of the community, and increased opportunity to collaborate with neighboring agencies that can provide much needed expertise. This final step will establish Cochise County as a leader in removing barriers to sustainable development for rural border communities.
The Significance of the Winchester Heights Community Center
Unsurprisingly, the infrastructure deficits Winchester Heights residents face are not uncommon in the Southwest. Nearly half a million people in Arizona and New Mexico alone, live in unincorporated neighborhoods designated as colonias: rural communities within 150 miles of the US/Mexico border whose main characteristic is lack of infrastructure needed to support public health. SEAHEC’s Healthy Farms Program provides a replicable model for addressing root causes of the persistent public health problems colonia residents’ face: lack of community capacity to address infrastructure deficits. At the same time, Healthy Farms’ training opportunities for health professions students and community health workers helps to build our rural health care workforce.