Program Description and Mission
Established in 2001, Cambridge Health Alliance's Volunteer Health Advisor (VHA) Program is operated by the Community Affairs Department. The program is a volunteer-driven, multicultural, and multilingual health education and outreach initiative, designed to create an effective and cost efficient outreach network to improve community health status.
The VHA peer counseling/peer helper model is an evidence-based strategy for providing education and support for health behavior change. Our trained VHAs are able to reach community members often inaccessible to paid staff by providing peer-based support, health education, and health promotion activities where the volunteers live, work, and go to church.
The mission of the VHA program is to improve community health by working collaboratively with faith-based and community-based organizations to recruit, train and support a sustainable volunteer workforce that provides culturally and linguistically appropriate health education and outreach to underserved and hard-to-reach populations.
Read this brochure to find out more.
VHA Roles and Responsibilities
The VHAs act as a bridge between the community and Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). Working within their own communities in multiple settings, VHAs:
- Provide basic health education in disease prevention and wellness;
- Organize health education forums and screening events;
- Run support groups for individuals with chronic diseases;
- Raise community awareness about the availability of free and low-cost health care coverage; and
- Assist community members in accessing health care.
VHAs serve communities speaking four main languages:
VHAs interested in becoming 'specialists' can choose to receive additional training in specific health areas, so they can conduct more in-depth education in their community on these issues. Specialists often have clinical backgrounds and were healthcare professionals in their country of origin. VHA specialists currently work in one or more of the following health areas:
- Nutrition and wellness
- Breast health
VHA Recruitment, Training and Support
CHA Program Coordinators first identify appropriate faith-based and community-based organizations from which volunteers can be recruited. They work with the leadership of these organizations to promote the VHA program, identify health issues of concern to organization members, and invite individual members to participate in the program.
Prospective VHAs attend a 20-hour health education training facilitated by CHA outreach and clinical staff in a culturally and linguistically appropriate format. The curriculum includes workshops on topics such as:
- General health issues
- Health access and outreach
- Empowerment and communication skills
- Public health
- Access to primary care and health insurance
- Basic health screening (blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, and weights and heights)
After this initial training, the Program Coordinators provide motivation and support to VHAs to sustain their work to improve the health of their communities. Program Coordinators also provide regular continuing education sessions for all VHAs, as well as training VHA specialists in specific health areas.
A VHA Advisory Board also exists to support VHA activities. The board is made up of members representing community organizations, churches, local businesses, and social service agencies from all four linguistic communities. In addition, VHAs representing each of the 4 language groups are members.
Cambridge Health Alliance employs a Program Coordinator for each of the VHA language or groups, as well as a Coordinator for the Breast Health Program. Each Coordinator is bilingual and bicultural with experience in community-based outreach and health education, and is certified as a community health educator. The Coordinators work with the VHA Program Supervisor to provide a standard structure across the VHA groups and to document and evaluate the work of each group.
CHA currently has four Program Coordinators, each focusing on a different language group or specialty area: Haitian-speaking communities, Portuguese-speaking communities, Spanish-speaking communities, and Breast Health. Each Program Coordinator is tasked with supporting his/her group, fostering a supportive group dynamic, providing ongoing training on health-related topics and monitoring the program's progress.
Specific responsibilities of CHA's Program Coordinators include:
- Establishing and maintaining relationships with local faith-based and community-based organizations
- Recruiting new VHAs
- Coordinating and facilitating the orientation training for new VHAs
- Providing motivation and support to sustain their VHA team's work to improve the health of their communities
- Offering individual assistance to VHAs in planning, organizing, and executing events and health presentations
- Assisting VHAs in identifying appropriate venues for activities
- Coordinating and facilitating monthly continuing education sessions for each language group
Success Stories and Awards
Since its inception, the VHA Program has trained over 500 VHAs who live and work in Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Malden and surrounding communities. Collectively these VHAs speak 16 different languages. In 2011, Program staff and volunteers organized or participated in 122 events in the community, collaborating with more than 100 community-based organizations and churches and reaching over 5,000 community members.
The VHA Program has received numerous awards, including the prestigious National Association of Public Hospitals' Community and Patient-Service Award in 2004, a 2005 Nova Award, a top honor from the American Public Health Association, and the National Minority Quality Forum's Booker T. Washington Award for Wellness in Minority Health in 2008.