• In this archive photo from 2002, Claudia Hardy, Angela Williams and the late Velma Harris use a model to lead a demonstration on breast self-exams during Community Health Advisor training at the North Birmingham Library.

  • Linda Goodson, a founder of the Cancer Center’s Community Health Advisor Program, conducts training in Marengo County.

  • Program Director Claudia Hardy (left) and County Coordinator Glenda James (right) share a moment during the early days of CHA training in West Alabama.

  • The Deep South Network for Cancer Control brought together health professionals, researchers and volunteers from Alabama and Mississippi to eliminate cancer health disparities through community-based education, training and research.

In two decades, the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB has trained more than 2,000 Community Heath Advisors. Countless lives have been impacted by the work of these Community Health Advisors, or CHAs, who provide a link to essential health education and awareness in communities most in need of access.

As the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, we look back at the founding, growth and evolution of its seminal asset, the Community Health Advisor Program.

Since its inception in 1995, the office has dedicated itself to increasing cancer education and awareness in medically underserved populations and to addressing health disparities. CHAs have been pivotal in executing that mission.

“The impact of the Community Health Advisors can never be overstated,” said Program Director Claudia Hardy, MPA, who arrived at the office in 1998, just a few years after its creation. “The CHA model is an ideal approach to reaching medically underserved individuals because of our use of trusted men and women from the targeted community who are ‘natural helpers.’ These community leaders, in turn, educate their families and neighbors about the need for cancer screenings.”

How it all began

Linda Goodson remembers the earliest days of what would eventually become the CHA program. Edward Partridge, M.D., the former Cancer Center director and founder of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, heard about a collaboration at UAB with Auburn University that paired health educators with county extension agents.

“The idea behind that project was, just like Auburn had a research center for agriculture, UAB would serve as the research center for human health,” said Goodson, who worked in the initiative through the UAB School of Public Health. “We would train them in health education programs that they would implement locally.”

Intrigued, Partridge sought to take the model and use to it promote cancer education. He then recruited Goodson to his new team.

“He just took it and ran with it,” Goodson said. “Without his leadership, we would never have had the impact that we had.”

The early days of the program involved collaborating with county extension systems to find local individuals who could serve a guides into rural communities. Likewise, ministers served as ambassadors to connect with more urban communities within the Birmingham and Jefferson County area.

While the office facilitated the program, Goodson said the CHA program was always led by the community and directed at the community level. It was the local residents who knew how to best address their community’s needs.

Among the earliest CHA initiatives was the West Alabama Breast and Cervical Center Outreach Program.

“The people in those communities actually promoted and were responsible for the growth at the local level, and they made an impact,” Goodson said. “The communities had a lot of say because they were the ones who were really driving it. We provide the training and resources, and we allowed the communities to develop the approach.”

Coming full circle

Angela Williams is a veteran CHA with 21 years of service under her belt. What began as a way to channel her own grief brought on by cancer evolved into what she calls a personal and professional calling to promote cancer awareness and better health.

Williams lost her sister to ovarian cancer in April 2001, just months after her diagnosis. Both Williams’ mother and father also died of cancer 10 years earlier.

“I was facilitating my grief by overworking, overeating and overstressing,” Williams recalled.

Things changed when an email came across her inbox seeking “natural helpers” to volunteer with the Cancer Center.

“The flier from UAB was like a godsend,” Williams said. “That was the first time I saw the names of Dr. Partridge and Claudia Hardy. They just appeared on my screen, and it was like a lightbulb went off.”

Williams said her work as a CHA helped channel her grief into productive activity to help others.

“It was a totally new experience for me, and I fell in love with helping people overcome barriers,” she said. “I fell in love with being out in my community.”

Williams said the invitation to serve as a CHA in what was then the Deep South Network program intrigued her in ways that other civic calls had not.

“Up until then, my response for any request to volunteer was to write a check,” she said. “I would gladly give you my money, but my time? No.”

This time was different.

“Because I was still in that grief, something inside said, ‘Here is your opportunity to channel that grief in a different type of way, get involved [and] become a Community Health Advisor,”’ Williams said.

Eventually Williams’ CHA work evolved into a full-fledged career change. She is now a patient navigator for the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, where she links patients to community resources and support for clinical trials.

Williams also sits on the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement’s Community Advisory Board.

“This is an extension of the Community Health Advisor model,” she said. “It is a natural progression for me.”

Note: The Office of Community Outreach & Engagement's virtual event, “Birth of the Community Health Advisor Program and Development of the CHA Model,” has been postponed. Updates on the event will be posted on the UAB Campus Calendar and on the O'Neal Cancer Center's social media platforms. .

This story originally ran in the February 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.