Throughout its 25 years, the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB has relied on community partners to form strategies that reach previously overlooked groups. Two of the newest members of the Community Advisory Board are serving as guides to help address health disparities among Alabama’s Latino, Latina and Latinx populations.

Board members Vanessa Vargas and Jean Hernandez are partners in expanding outreach efforts to reach a Spanish-speaking audience through community collaboration and culturally relevant, inclusive messaging.

“Throughout the years, our Cancer Center has worked to ensure that we provided outreach to racial and ethnic communities that have huge cancer disparities, specifically African American and Latino populations,” said Claudia Hardy, MPA, program director of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. “The addition of Jean and Vanessa to our Community Advisory Board helps us to further reach these communities.”

Both members bring years of experience in serving a growing and diverse Latino, Latina and Latinx community. Vargas is manager of Latino News, and Hernandez serves as director of the Alabama Latino Aids Coalition.

Vanessa Vargas

Vargas arrived in Alabama from her home country of Colombia at age 5. Her father was a civil engineer, and her mother was an interior designer.

Still, the family needed guidance on how to start over in their newly adopted community. They first settled in Etowah County, Alabama.

Vanessa VargasVanessa Vargas

“When you are an immigrant, you look for help,” Vargas said. “Normally, when immigrants come here, we go to nonprofits or churches. In our case, we went to St. James Catholic Church.”

It was at St. James that the priest recommended her father create a newsletter for the parish. He would also need to sell ads to pay for the printing costs.

An unmet community need was filled. The small Spanish-language publication began to grow from a monthly, to a biweekly and, finally, to a weekly publication.

“That’s how the newspaper started,” Vargas said.

Vargas remembers sitting in the back of the family’s Ford Explorer surrounded by newspapers. It was her job to put the bundles together for delivery.

“Throughout that time, I was learning English,” she said. “Eventually, I started being more involved. And now I’m here.”

Vargas said the pandemic has underscored the need for communities to unite in support of one another. Her partnership with OCOE is an example. 

“It’s being intentional about who you’re reaching out to,” Vargas explained. “It’s not as hard as you think. It’s a matter of picking up the phone and sending an email. We all want to grow. We all want a voice. It is empowering and beautiful when you say, ‘I want to be intentional. How do we move forward?’”

Now the manager of a multimedia company with both a social media and a daily broadcast presence, Vargas has helped position Latino News as a trusted resource for a diverse, multinational, Spanish-speaking community that spans much of the state.

The focus on cancer is personal for Vargas. Both her grandmother and uncle died from cancer. Working with OCOE, Vargas says she is ready to help disseminate valuable information about screening and treatment.

“It’s being proactive about your health,” she said. “We’ve learned during the pandemic that life is a very precious thing. The diseases that affect us don’t discriminate.”

Vargas’ partnership with OCOE is also a homecoming. She graduated from UAB with an undergraduate degree in human resource management and a master’s degree in business administration.

“I tell people that I’m a community connector. I have two cultures in me, and I love building that bridge,” she explained. “We all need the same resources and have the same needs. For me, it’s important that people try to understand that we’re not all that different.”

Jean Hernandez

Hernandez’s cell phone number is a lifeline to the dozens of men and women who reach out to her for help. Day or night, the time doesn’t matter. Hernandez will always answer.

Hernandez has served as director of the Alabama Latino Aids Coalition, a program of AIDS Alabama, since 2011. 

Jean HernandezJean Hernandez

Early on, she quickly learned that community outreach meant much more than having the ability to provide services and resources. She had to go into communities and establish trust.

“I understood that it was about coming to them,” Hernandez said. “It took me a while to do the work that I am doing right now.”

The agency began hosting health fairs and operating a mobile testing unit. Now, more than 40 clients living with HIV receive housing and transportation support from the coalition.

Once the coalition became known as a trusted resource, Hernandez discovered that the needs of her clients extended beyond her core mission of HIV awareness and support. The needs for legal assistance and help with immigration were consistent issues. Hernandez then worked to expand the agency’s reach by partnering with other agencies.

“We began to see a lot of other needs in the community,” she recalled.  “We also have immigration financial assistance for our clients living with HIV. It’s a barrier, and we knew that a lot of people could not afford an immigration lawyer.”

The coalition stands at the intersection of HIV services, immigration, legal services and health care accessibility. Each is interconnected, Hernandez explained. Fear over immigration status has prevented some people from seeking life-saving treatment.

In addition to access to health care, other quality-of-life issues for families have been addressed with the coalition’s assistance.

For example, the group recently helped a husband and wife obtain legal assistance to secure their immigration status. Now, the group is helping the couple’s daughter who has dreams of going to college, following her recent high school graduation.

“Now we can apply for the visa and the paperwork so she can go to college,” Hernandez said.

In its expanded capacity, the coalition also coordinates support groups focusing on family issues, mental health and LGBTQ members of the community.

Hernandez said the latest partnership with the O’Neal Cancer Center provides another resource for the coalition to better service its clients.

Hernandez specifically wants to enhance cancer outreach efforts regarding prostate cancer and breast cancer. She called the partnership with the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center a natural fit. The O’Neal Cancer Center, through the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, offers valuable information, while the coalition has the ability to reach a population that would greatly benefit from that information, she said.

“I want to make it pertinent for them,” Hernandez said. “What is the next step so that we can begin to educate people on all these cancers? I am learning a lot. It is important that my colleagues and peers know. I am excited to begin the collaboration.”

Visit uabmedicine.org to learn more about prostate cancer and breast cancer.


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