The Power of Collaboration
The funds raised by the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center’s (MHRC) annual gala, now in its fifth year, have enabled the center to develop many wonderful new programs that support its mission to end the problems caused by health disparities. The community volunteers who chair this event every year graciously give of their time and energy to help raise these vital funds and support these important programs.
One successful example is the Alabama Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) 2010 project. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, REACH empowers residents to be their own health advocates and builds community capacity by training volunteers to serve as community health advisors (CHAs).
Breast cancer is diagnosed less often in African-American women than white women, but more African-American women die of this disease each year. The Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Coalition (ABCCC) set out to change that statistic through REACH 2010 and theCHAs. UAB coordinates the ABCCC, which serves women in two urban and six rural counties in Alabama’s Black Belt area. The coalition includes community leaders from 19 grassroots organizations, nonprofits, state health departments, faith-based institutions, universities, and health education centers.
“The REACH 2010 project is a prime example of community-based participatory research in action,” says Theresa Wynn, Ph.D., program director of the REACH project in the UAB School of Medicine’s Division of Preventive Medicine. “The coalition’s guiding framework implies that researchers, academicians, community leaders, and project partners work together to develop viable strategies to address breast and cervical cancer. Originally 241 volunteers were trained as CHAs. They reached 1,539 African-American women, offering them personalized educational messages and addressing each woman’s barriers to screenings.”
Mona Fouad, M.D., principal investigator on the REACH project and director of the MHRC, adds, “We eliminated the disparity in mammography screening between African-American and white women in the six REACH counties. This is a tremendous achievement, and it was only possible because of the involvement of the local volunteers trained as community health advisors, who took ownership of the project. In the battle against health disparities, the first and most important step is to empower every individual to take charge of their own health, their own community.”
Mary Snyder says she became a CHA after surviving breast cancer. “I learned in life you’ve got to be able to give something back,” she says. “As a CHA, I made people aware of available services. If they had to go to a doctor and my car was available, they had a way to go. If they needed a babysitter, I was there so that they could keep their appointments. It’s just amazing to me that there are services available that people know nothing about. These are the types of things we’re trying to make them aware of.”
The REACH 2010 project also trains CHAs to serve as research partners. “We were able to see results above and beyond our expectations because of mutual collaboration and trust between our coalition and these community volunteers,” Wynn says. “We also were very fortunate to have project supporters like the American Cancer Society, as well as local businesses, churches, radio stations, and civic groups.” And the REACH 2010 project has laid the foundation for several initiatives that the CHAs are now involved in or soon will be.
Malena Cunningham, president of Strategic Media Relations and owner of a Curves fitness facility, was inspired to get involved with the MHRC after she attended the first gala five years ago. She has since participated as an emcee for the event, and this year, she is serving as co-chair along with Robert Aland and Jim Rotch. “I was touched by the work being done in Alabama’s Black Belt region to help deal with problems too common in the African-American community. It was good to see that UAB created a research center to take on issues that often result from income and education disparities.”
Cunningham adds, “Volunteers are the lifeblood of any community. When we pool our talents as well as resources, those gifts go so much further. Plus, anyone who volunteers knows there’s no greater gift than helping make a real difference in the lives of others.”
“Achieving health equity is truly a collective effort,” Fouad notes, “and it requires all of us working together to close the widening health-care gap. Our volunteers—from those working in the community as health advisors to those serving as gala chairs—are the secret to our remarkable success over the past five years.”