Seeing communities suffer from the effects of COVID-19 and the massive potential in young people to mitigate the spread of the virus, the City of Houston created the Community Health Education Fellows (CHEF) program. The CHEF program hires young people to be trained as community health workers and contact tracers. They work in 22 Houston super-neighborhoods identified as most affected by COVID-19. We interviewed the first CHEF cohort to gain insight into some of the community work they are doing in the coronavirus pandemic. Read more CHEF stories.
Julia is a 19 year-old pharmacy technician and college sophomore representing the Gulf crest/Belfort/Reveille neighborhood. We interviewed Julia about her perceptions of the pandemic and experience as a CHEF. Below is a brief transcript of our conversation.
I am about to be a rising sophomore in college and like a lot of students, my classes were switched online. It was a struggle for me to really grasp the material as well as I could have back when it was face-to-face. I had a lot of growing frustrations with my college for the way they were handling the situation as well as the government and all that. My family suffered too with the whole unemployment thing, so being able to participate in the CHEF program really helped. Currently, I am trying to do my pre-reqs for pharmacy school. I am also working part time as a pharmacy technician. So, even before the CHEF program, I had already seen firsthand the panic and frustration everyone was having with the pandemic and everything being shut down and people losing their jobs. Even if I didn't have the opportunity to work with the community, I can already see how being put in the front lines in the pharmacy…it’s really mind blowing and kind of upsetting.
I start early in the morning at 9 to 9:30 AM in our check-in meetings with the rest of the cohort and my supervisors to get an idea of what our objective would be for the day. I also get in touch with my cohort on the side to see what their ideas are and bounce off of that-we like to host our own little personal meetings to kind of catch each other up and exchange ideas. Most of my day really is researching and relaying info that I find to my cohort. They may find that info more useful than me because everyone has different communities and different needs. This week I started planning presentations and surveys with my team. So, for example, this week I focused on COVID resources for the disabled and victims of abuse and also emphasizing the importance of getting a flu shot. Now that flu season is here, it's being recommended to take the flu shot now because you don't want to get flu and COVID. So, at the end of day I would join the checkout meeting to see what we've accomplished so far for the day, address any concerns and obstacles we may have had, and basically respond to emails to see who I can reach out to to get more info from to plan presentations and all that.
So, like most young people. I use social media a lot, which is where I get most of my news and it allows me to be able to engage in conversations about what our leaders are doing to address these issues which groups are most effective and which groups are being ignored entirely. And with that, to me, the pandemic basically put all of our systemic flaws into the spotlight like, just to name a few, employer based health care coverage and neglecting low income minority communities. As a young person, I think I at least have the advantage of having access to quick information and being able to speak on behalf of those who can't because I'm not a full time worker, my life isn't on the line. So I'm one of the few who have that benefit. And so I liked that they were creating the CHEFs program targeting young people, because I think we are able to give out that information the best and to plan these outreach initiatives, effectively, because we know our community better.
Yeah, the pandemic did emphasize inequalities we’ve been struggling with for a while now and basically I was already aware of inequality and like I said COVID put a spotlight on it. With the CHEFS program, I gained insight on which specific neighborhoods in the city have been hit the hardest with inadequate resources and info. So your communities like Acres Homes, Sunnyside, Gulfton, etc, had been named by the city to be some of the most impacted areas, and it is mainly low-income minorities, so I'm not really surprised by that. Working with my cohort and hearing their reports and their input from their communities was a real eye opener for me for the past few weeks. Specifically, a neighborhood that I'm from, Belfort, didn't have any public posters for COVID-19, testing sites, PPE, nothing. And I heard from my team member in Acres Homes that was also the case there. So yeah, it was eye opening in a bad way…I guess…shocking.
This summer, I learned that my community has been struggling mentally due to the pandemic. At the same time, we’ve been really divided in my neighborhood. I hardly see people wearing masks when they go out, but those who do wear a mask, they're not wearing it properly. I feel like there's a lot of tension between “believers” and “non-believers” of COVID. As for myself, I learned that I have a lot of potential to become a better critical thinker. It’s not easy to put yourself into someone else's shoes, but you can still sympathize and do the research and perform outreach initiatives to learn from that community to see how I can help them to the best of my ability.
I think that the CHEFs program could be a big turning point for the city during this time and I think it should be something that exists nationwide because I feel like getting actual input from members of the community can really help us get out of this faster. It's necessary and people could really benefit from it.