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The Road to Becoming a Community Health Worker: Spotlight on Maria Peña

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

The Columbia Gorge is full of passionate people dedicated to community health and health equity. This is the fourth in a series of “spotlights” on community members tackling these issues in unique and inspiring ways. No matter how it may feel at times, we are not doing this work alone.

Maria Peña before speaking at a conference.

Maria Peña has been a Community Health Worker in The Dalles for 27 years. She grew up near Mexico City, in a small town called San Mateo in the State of Mexico. She and her siblings were raised by their maternal grandparents. Maria’s grandfather was in charge of caring for horses at a nearby ranch, and her family raised pigs and grew beans, corn, and other vegetables. Maria and her siblings often ran around barefoot outside.

“We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor because we were so happy,” Maria says.

Maria’s mother began coming to the US when Maria was very young in order to find work and support the family. Between the ages of 6 and 14, Maria did not see her mother at all. In 1979, when Maria was 14, her mother took her and her siblings back to the US. Maria attended middle and high school in The Dalles: the same schools her own children later attended.

In August of 1982, Maria went back to Mexico to attend the funeral of a close cousin. While there, she reconnected with her ex boyfriend, Juan, and the two married in June of 1983 and stayed in Mexico for another two years. In 1985, the Mexico City earthquake struck at a magnitude of 8.0, causing massive damage in the area, including to the government building where Juan worked. Juan lost his job and would have been sent to a rural area in Mexico, which was unappealing. So they returned to The Dalles.

Upon coming back, Maria and Juan worked in agriculture picking cherries, apples, and pears, and working in fruit canneries. The work was unfamiliar and they did not enjoy it, so they returned to Mexico in the same year. They stayed in Mexico for another three years, and then moved to Palm Springs, CA where Juan took a job in a restaurant. Maria’s first daughter, Andrea, was born in Palm Springs. The young family eventually decided to move back to The Dalles, as Maria was seeking more opportunities for work.

While living in The Dalles, Maria had visited the health department, North Central Public Health District (then Wasco-Sherman Public Health Department), to receive WIC services for her young daughter. People in the community knew that she could interpret well from Spanish to English. One day in 1993 she came to NCPHD to interpret for a pregnant friend.

A 1993 article posted in Maria's office.

As she was walking out the door, one of the home visiting nurses at the time, Kathy Schwartz, approached her and asked if she wanted a part-time job interpreting at the health department. Maria said no, she would only take a full time position. Then, a few weeks later, Kathy stopped by Taco Time where Maria was working and told her a full time job was available. She asked Maria to come in for an interview, but Maria didn’t have childcare. So Kathy told her to bring her young daughter. Maria was hired as Community Health Worker in 1993 and has been working as a CHW ever since.

So what does it mean to be a Community Health Worker? According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), Community Health Workers are “frontline public health workers who are trusted members of and/or have an unusually close understanding to the community they serve. This trusting relationship enables CHWs to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and culture humility of service delivery.”

The Gorge region has been nationally renowned for its embracing of CHWs. There are more trained CHWs in the Gorge than other county or region in the country. This embedding of the CHW model in many agencies and organizations was a big reason for the Gorge receiving the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize in 2016. The Gorge has an established community of CHWs who all support each other in many ways, for example, through the monthly Community of Practice meeting where members share resources and information.

Maria feels supported in her role as CHW, in large part because of the Community of Practice and because of Doña Toña Sanchez, Lead Community Health Worker at The Next Door. “I’ve been working with her since I started working here. We are pretty fortunate that we have her in our community. She has been a role model for all the community health workers. I look up to her.”

Day to day, Maria’s work can look very different. She conducts about 10 home visits per month with a community health nurse to support pregnant moms and moms of young children. She is also a certified assister for the Oregon Health Plan, so she meets with individuals and families by appointment at NCPHD to assist with the OHP application. As a Certified Health Care Interpreter through the Oregon Health Authority, Maria also interprets (English to Spanish) for walk-in visits at the NCPHD clinic once a week. Lastly, she works two days a week at Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles on a grant-funded program called STEPS (Support to Expecting and Parenting Students). So far this program has been going well: Maria now has 20 students who attend classes regularly.

For Maria, collaboration with community partners is key to accomplishing certain goals. For example, her work with the STEPS program in collaboration with Columbia Gorge Community College allows her to reach pregnant and parenting students she might not otherwise reach. Maria also sits on the steering committee for the Gorge Translink, an alliance of rural providers offering public transportation services throughout the Mid-Columbia River Gorge. She helps Gorge Translink reach the community, which includes making transportation information available in Spanish on and off the buses. This is crucial for making the Spanish-speaking community aware of bus services, and also for making the Spanish-speaking community feel welcome on the bus itself.

Even though Maria has been working as a CHW for almost 30 years, she sometimes feels that she isn’t taken as seriously as someone with an RN or MD behind his or her name. Despite this challenge, and others, Maria finds her work incredibly rewarding.

“On days when I don’t feel like coming to work, and I come to work and I help somebody - for whatever reason - that’s a sign that I’m meant to be here.”

“Most of the time I meet with clients [whose delivery room I was in] when they had their baby, and now I’m helping them with their babies having babies. And they come back to me because they know that I can help them. For them to trust you enough to help their own kids - I think that’s more rewarding than anything else. When you do that and walk away, you think, ‘Oh, that’s why I’m meant to be here today’.”

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