When she was five years old, Vanessa Valenzuela Castillo, a Willcox High School junior, stood by helplessly while her neighbors’ house burned down, killing two family members. This tragedy inspired her to join SEAHEC’s Healthy Farms community health worker team in Winchester Heights. The youngest member of the team, Vanessa dreams of a time when she and her neighbors will be equipped to prevent similar tragedies through increased knowledge and resources sufficient to prevent and respond to emergencies.
On Saturday, August 18th, SEAHEC, partners and Winchester Heights residents celebrated the inauguration of the new Winchester Heights Community Center and the I “Heart” Children Burris Memorial Park. The community center will be a hub for recruitment and training of residents to address long-standing health and safety issues caused by lack of public infrastructure. It is part of a landmark public health initiative to model a rural development strategy with community health workers at its heart.
SEAHEC has worked with the Winchester Heights community since 2008, when SEAHEC public health intern, Christy Trimmer Boland, M.P.H, published research that revealed egregious health disparities faced by farmworkers in the US. Winchester Heights is a community of approximately 600 people, the majority of whom are farm workers. Located 14 miles north of Willcox, Arizona, Winchester Heights is characteristic of border communities federally classified as “colonias” for their lack of infrastructure needed to support basic public health.
Building Leverage for Border Colonias
SEAHEC’s Healthy Farms Initiative was founded in 2009, based on Ms. Trimmer’s research, to improve health outcomes by increasing access to health information and services in rural farmworker communities. Over the years, it became clear that residents faced many barriers to improving health conditions in the community due to lack of organizational capacity and infrastructure for sustainable recruitment, training and advocacy support. Through a series of projects designed to build community capacity to address health issues, SEAHEC’s Healthy Farms program has created a roadmap for change that begins with community health workers.
In 2013, SEAHEC launched the first Healthy Farms team of trained community health workers (CHWs.) The team worked with local health care providers to create an information and referral system, and provided health education through home visits and informal talks in the workplace.
In 2014, SEAHEC interns from the University of Arizona worked with community residents to install bus shelters for school children, the first tangible infrastructure improvement the community had seen in years.
In 2015, SEAHEC and residents organized the first community health fair, which drew over 60 participants, half of whom were school-aged children.
In 2017, residents worked with SEAHEC public health interns to conduct a Community Environmental Health Assessment (CEHA) which has provided the community with health data they will use to understand and prioritize public health issues, the first step in addressing them.
In 2018, Winchester Heights residents founded a Community Action Board (CAB,) based on the results of the CEHA. The CAB consists of eight community members, including trained community health workers, who will oversee the maintenance and sustainability of the community center. They will also work with SEAHEC to recruit, train and support neighbors to form Community Action Committees (CAC) charged with addressing health issues identified in the CEHA.