November 17, 2023
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), an RWJBarnabas Health facility, Community Health Ambassador Irma Nolasco recently participated in the Johnson & Johnson Foundation-sponsored event, “Stories from the Heart of Health” held during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City last month.
The event provides an opportunity for front-line health workers to share their inspiring stories at the heart of health along with best practices that help health care providers better address challenges their local communities face today. Nolasco spoke about her outreach experiences working with RWJUH Team Salud. Team Salud is a group of bilingual volunteer community health workers that serve as a bridge between the healthcare system and the New Brunswick community.
A New Brunswick resident, Nolasco works with Team Salud’s Diabetes Spanish-language support group. She has also helped promote flu and COVID-19 vaccinations in the community, addressing barriers and questions community residents had about the vaccine.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw our community scared, uninformed and in high-risk situations. We started calling on our people to share truthful, direct information from medical sources,” Nolasco explained. “We took the information to Bodegas and local businesses. We shared information on social media in English and Spanish. We worked hard to get our community to trust the information, get tested, and help them sign up for COVID and flu vaccines”
Nolasco dreamed of being a teacher while growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico. She immigrated to the United States to join her husband and had to put her dream on hold, due to the cost of education and her unfamiliarity with the English language. Instead, she and her husband focused on earning enough to support their children and give them a path to a better life.
Despite these obstacles, Nolasco was determined to help others.
“My first job here was as a cleaner at a rehabilitation clinic,” Nolasco recalls. “With my little English, I listened to the patients and just by patting them or touching their hand, they felt better. Patients needed to talk to someone and feel the human warmth.”
Nolasco continued helping and serving others at her church.
“Years later, I joined a group in my parish called Women of Social Justice focused on developing our leadership, self-love, and mutual help. There I met many migrant women, like me, who had the same dreams and desires,” Nolasco said. “We formed bonds of friendship and learned about the many challenges our community is facing – such as domestic violence, obesity in our children, and the importance of Community Health Workers in the Latino community.”
Nolasco may have found her true calling when RWJUH Director of Community Health Promotions Mariam Merced and her staff formed Team Salud. They began recruiting local, Spanish-speaking residents to serve as Community Health Promoters, also known as “Promotoras.”
“One day I was invited to join Team Salud to work as a health promoter,” Nolasco explained. “Being invited was emotional for me and at the same time a challenge. I was excited to think that there was something good that I could give to people and that I could continue my dream of educating. As a health promoter, I bring information and I teach my community. I can advise and encourage them as a teacher does.”
In the Team Salud program, Community Health Promoters complete health workshops and specialized training on how to effectively conduct community health outreach – from where to place a flyer, how to approach people and how to share strategies that motivate individuals to take control of their health and that of their family.
“I have learned that our job as a Promotora is to connect our community to health services,” Nolasco noted. “This job is also like being a teacher. We are part of our communities and we know what challenges we face when seeking medical services – we don’t speak the language, we work long hours, we don’t know where to look for services, we don’t have anyone to take care of our children so we can go get tested, and we are afraid to participate because we are undocumented. We have managed to make people trust us. They know us. They see us actively carrying information and walking the streets.”
During her presentation at the Johnson & Johnson Foundation event, Nolasco spoke about challenges that the Latino community faces when accessing health care services and how RWJUH’s Community Health Ambassadors serve as a bridge to these services for many in the Latino Community.
Nolasco also stressed the importance of health insurance for all and how it would improve access to healthcare and health equity for vulnerable communities during the concluding panel discussion.
Although Nolasco did not become a teacher as she originally planned, she believes that she ultimately achieved her dream.
“I can say that being a promoter has become my life project and my dream. I’m happy to be able to help people in one way or another,” Nolasco said. “Every day, I help my community with the health information I receive. Not only that, I also use it to take care of my health and that of my family. We are one voice – creating a culture of taking care of our health.”
Shown from left to right following the Johnson & Johnson Foundation Stories from the Heart of Health event held during the United Nations General Assembly are: Mariam Merced, Director of Community Health Promotions at RWJUH; Irma Nolasco, Community Health Ambassador at RWJUH; and Silvia Cruz-Vargas, Senior Director of Global Community Impact for Johnson & Johnson.