Community Health Workers Program Prepares Students for Growing Field

In 2015, Shalee Ellis became an unintentional social media celebrity.

During the Transgender Day of Visibility, Ellis filmed — initially only for her wife — a short video of a conversation with her then 5-year-old daughter, Layla, telling her for the first time that her dad was transitioning from male to female.

Layla gave Ellis a huge thumbs up and the most encouraging words a little girl can give to a parent — “I love you!” After being featured by ABC News, Buzzfeed LGBT, Huffington Post, LGBT Nation, AOL, Yahoo and George Takei, the video has since been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

“Even if it wasn’t the initial intention, I do think that the video is now part of my family’s advocacy for LGBTQIA+ individuals,” said Ellis, 26. “At this point we have continued making videos and utilizing our social media platform to educate and advocate for transgender inequities specifically in addition to LGBT/Feminist issues as a whole.”

To increase her skills and improve her ability to assist others within the LGBTQIA+ community, Ellis was among the recent graduates to complete the Community Health Worker Training Program at Temple University Harrisburg. The highly successful program, originally developed by the Center for Social Policy and Community Development (CSPCD) at Temple’s Main Campus, is now a year old at Harrisburg and growing quickly as demand for community health workers grows in the region.

“After graduating our first cohort in fall 2015, we had more employers inquire about our graduates than we had graduates to fill positions! The Affordable Care Act includes provisions that support the employment of paraprofessionals to act as a liaison between clinical providers and the highest risk/highest need patients,” said Susan Washinger, Coordinator for the Community Health Worker Training Program in the Capitol Region. “Community health worker isn’t necessarily a new field, but more and more, communities in the United States are beginning to understand their value. It a growing field with the Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industry joining in the conversation.”

According to Washinger, healthcare in the United States “is focused on three areas of improvement: population health, the patient experience and cost savings.”

“The Community Health Worker (CHW) concept could have a significant impact in all three areas. CHWs are the key to addressing social determinants of health, which is essential to improving population health,” she said. “CHWs are members of the communities they serve and therefore can relate to patients on a more authentic, deeper level than clinicians — all while costing less to employ than a nurse or licensed social worker.  Within the nation’s very high-tech healthcare systems, community health workers bring the ‘high-touch’ that is equally important to caring for patients.”

As a young mother, Ellis said, she had to choose working 40 to 50 hours a week over furthering her education for several years. Not long after entering Temple Harrisburg’s Community Health Worker program, she said, “I very quickly realized that the information that I was learning was an invaluable resource to me on a personal level — the program has fueled my passion for activism and social justice.”

“My goal now is to work directly with the LGBT & Queer community, specifically young adults and children. Being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and knowing the disproportionate statistics against transgender and gay youth is the main motivator in my advocacy career,” she said. “Completing the CHW program absolutely furthered my knowledge on ways to reach out to my community, as well as how to practice cultural humility. I think people recognize that there’s often a big disconnect between medical professionals and their patients — 25 percent of transgender individuals have to educate their primary care physicians on transgender health issues and inequities; that statistic alone tells me that CHWs are needed now more than ever.”

Temple’s 130-hour Community Health Worker Training Program builds core competencies for students wishing to seek employment in a community health work role, Washinger said. Core competencies include: communication and interpersonal skills, a knowledge base of community health issues and services, service coordination, capacity-building, advocacy, teaching and organizational skills. 

“The course covers important communication skills, community resourcing and asset mapping and healthcare topics including ethical, legal and technical areas,” she said. “Students are assessed with a patient simulation experience, a group presentation, written exams and homework assignments, as well as classroom participation. The program schedule is very flexible — we schedule it completely around the needs of the students.”

Community Health Workers, Washinger said, often act as liaisons between health and social services and the community, “facilitating access to services and improving the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.”

“They work to increase knowledge and self-sufficiency through a range of activities such as outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy,” she said.

Pushpa Gurung, a fall 2015 graduate of the program, for example, has spent the last three years as a board member of the organization Bhutanese Community in Harrisburg, assisting members of the community with basic quality of life necessities to helping individuals prepare for citizenship tests.

Gurung, originally from Bhutan, spent 18 years in refugee camps in Nepal before arriving in the U.S. in 2010. Today, she devotes her life to helping other members of the large Bhutanese immigrant population in Harrisburg find a better future for themselves as well.

“The Bhutanese community in the Harrisburg area consists of about 5,000 people, a large percentage of which are not able to understand, read or write English,” said Gurung, whose success story was recently featured on National Public Radio. “They aren’t able to read their mail or fill out insurance forms or make a doctor’s appointment. I made it my goal to help as many members of the community as I could. Temple’s program improved my skills and has given me so many resources to build on.”

According to Washinger, successful CHW candidates will have the opportunity to receive a tuition scholarship to earn 3.0 undergraduate college credits for the course from Temple University’s School of Social Work, Washinger said.

“Temple Harrisburg’s most recent graduates have diverse backgrounds and experiences. Several have more than 20 years of experience working in human services and desire to expand their knowledge to work in healthcare,” she said. “Some wish to bring their experience managing their own or loved ones’ chronic conditions or other health challenges while others are altruistic, active volunteers looking for ways to further help individuals in their communities. All display characteristics valued in the field such as trustworthiness, warmth, sensitivity, objectivity, self-awareness and competence.”

Mariel Vasquez, who graduated from the Community Health Worker Program with Ellis, is dedicated to guiding patients to the right resources with the knowledge that she has gained.

“The CHW program has been a true blessing. More than anything, I think I gained so much social knowledge and a greater understanding for our patients,” said Vasquez who currently works at the Hamilton Health Center. “When a patient misses a scheduled appointment, it might very well mean that there was some sort of barrier to their being able to keep that appointment; something that we might be able to assist them with. I am using what I learned in the classroom every day in every interaction I have with a patient.”

Vasquez views the program as an excellent start toward a bright future and several new and exciting opportunities for growth at Hamilton Health Center in the coming year.

“My goal was to give myself the skills necessary to more effectively help people. I have definitely developed a lot of brand new tools along the way,” she said. “I’ve learned how to engage longer and ask more questions to solve problems — I want to be an advocate for our patients. CHW is a program that opens doors in a growing field and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

The next Community Health Worker course at Temple University Harrisburg will be held on Wednesday evenings and Saturdays from February 22 through May 24, 2017. Student Orientation programs will be held on Monday, January 16, Friday, January 27 and Saturday, February 4. Register online here for Harrisburg and other communities.

For more information about the Community Health Worker Training Program, contact Susan Washinger at or 717-221-1638.