Maria Valenzuela has been serving the Hispanic community in Arizona with Esperança since 2000. In that time, she has created nationally recognized preventative health curriculum and was asked to speak about her work in front of the United States Congress, has presented at two World Health Organization (WHO) global forums and was chosen for the Aspen-Aetna Healthy Communities Fellowship in 2019.
This interview explores the health inequities specific to minorities that Maria has experienced in her lengthy public health career. In celebration of Minority Health Month (celebrated every April), we hope you will take the time to read over her responses that will lead to a better understanding of the communities we serve.
What led you to live and serve in Phoenix?
Maria: As a child, my mother and I settled in the South Phoenix area after moving from Sonora, Mexico. At the age of 14, I was enrolled in a summer-job program for youth who lived in the communities where employment was offered. I was given the opportunity to be place at Wesley Community Center. This is where I fell in love with serving families from my community.
One hot Arizona summer day a mother and her three children walked in for an appointment with the Women Infant & Children program. She was a bit frazzled and her children looked tired and parched from walking to the center in heat. The only other person at the center was an English-speaking employee who was struggling communicating with this family. I offered to help translate and immediately I saw the relief on her face that someone there could speak her native language. We gave the kids water and a snack and were able to get the mom assistance beyond her appointment with WIC. This experienced continues to live with me and therefore I continue to serve the Phoenix area.
What motivated you to create a preventative education program?
Maria: In 2000 I was responsible for coordinating a school-based health clinic for a community that was found to be one of the ten worst communities in the nation for life expectancy and overall quality of life. After seeing this firsthand and being asked by parents many questions concerning their children’s health needs and treatment, I realized these parents needed a little help with learning basic and critical preventative information about their children’s wellbeing and their own.
A great part of your work centers on creating a curriculum with community culture in mind. How do you do this?
Maria: The curricula that have been designed were inspired by community members expressing what has been missing for them and what knowledge and resources they would like to learn about. We collaborate with our local universities and interns who are completing their masters and or other higher education degrees and are interested in implementing their internship responsibilities with us. These interns often do impact assessments and work with our team to better programs for our participants.
You have presented your program in front of congress and at multiple WHO conferences. What is once piece of advice you would give other community-based organizations serving minority populations?
Maria: Community Health Workers/Educators/Liaisons who are culturally competent and have similar life experiences as the community members you are serving is essential. Having employees who can work with and for with people that speak their language and look like them can sometimes be the make it or break it of a program and or project. Community members want to work with representatives from organizations that can understand their background without having to explain where they come from and what their true challenges are or have been.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing minority populations in achieving health equity? What can every day citizens do to help?
Maria: I don’t believe there’s just one obstacle that can be the biggest that face the minority populations we serve achieve health equity. I come across several disproportionate community members who suffer from chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart dieses, diabetes, asthma, obesity, etc. These individuals live in neighborhoods that are food deserts, are overly saturated with targeted media and fast food options from the dollar menu and lack access to reliable health information in their native language. Minorities in these communities are set up to fail, so Esperança is trying to improve the system from the ground up, creating true social change.
How have you seen this population disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Maria: The population we work with more than likely have always been disproportionately affected by health issues compared to other communities just miles apart. Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for some of these matters come to light. The populations we serve are often uninsured and/or uninsurable, and many of them suffer from underlying health conditions. Some are essential workers and are not allowed the time off with pay if they have any symptoms of being ill but are still able to functions. Access to transportation and language barriers tend to leave these people behind in receiving certain services. Food distribution and COVID testing areas would only service community members if they were inside a vehicle, and many of our participants do not have their own vehicles. Vital information wasn’t always readily available in their native language or appropriate literacy level.
I hear many people say we are nearing the end of the pandemic and/or we don’t have to worry and can go back to normal, but we must remember that many of our community members will continue to suffer the consequence of the pandemic, some have lost their employment, their housing and loved ones. They do not have the support perhaps you and I may and we will not know or understand their struggles unless we take the time to care, to really care, and take action to assist in the best possible way for life to be a little better than it was the day before.