A former National Guard armory in Marengo County serves as a staging area where Edward Oates coordinates the distribution of 840 boxes of food for her community. (Photos courtesy of Edward Oates)A former National Guard armory in Marengo County serves as a staging area where Edward Oates coordinates the distribution of 840 boxes of food for her community. (Photos courtesy of Edward Oates)

LINDEN, Alabama — Groups of young men socializing outside without facemasks often get a visit from Edward Oates as she drives by, pulls over and offers a motherly word of medical wisdom.

“I need you to survive,” Oates, a retired nurse, says as she hands out several facemasks from her front seat. “It’s going to help all of us. I’m helping you so you can help me.”

Oates might consider herself to be retired, but her daily schedule contradicts that.

Oates is a Community Health Advisor in the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. Her advocacy activity has only intensified after returning to her native Linden, Alabama, in Marengo County at the conclusion of a career in New York and New Jersey.

Community needs back home were compounded by the current coronavirus pandemic, and Oates was ready to jump to action with food distribution, COVID-19 screenings and ongoing education activities.

“We are still learning about what’s going on, but we need to follow the science about the things we know that are working,” Oates said, taking a break between appointments and phone calls on a recent weekday. “If you get an opportunity to educate somebody, you shouldn’t miss that opportunity.”

Oates even passed out facemasks at a graveside funeral service, subtly reminding neighbors that the pandemic has no respect for person or ceremony.

Edward OatesEdward Oates

Her assignment as a Community Health Advisor, or CHA, gives Oates a broader audience to promote multiple issues regarding better health, cancer awareness and COVID-19 prevention. Her major goal is to debunk myths surrounding the pandemic and other health issues.

“Having the background that I have, being a health care professional, it has always been about education, because you can’t change what you don’t know,” Oates explained. “This has given me a greater point of contact to be able to touch as many people as I have.”

When Oates noticed a shortage of available COVID-19 testing in her community, she partnered with a health care provider to establish five testing sites throughout Marengo County. As part of the COVID-19 response, Oates also helps coordinate distribution of produce and milk to county residents each Thursday.

An old National Guard armory nearby serves as a staging area where 840 boxes of food are given to all who need them. Even the distribution days provide Oates with opportunities to discuss general health and COVID-19 awareness – all while wearing a mask and gloves.

“I still have people who call me because a lot of people know I’m a nurse, and I’m steering them to go see their health care provider and encouraging them to be honest with their provider,” she said.

While Oates is quick to take on a project, she hesitates to take credit for any success that results. Service is both a duty and a privilege, she says.

“We are all here to serve,” she said. “We could all use a lot more humility in life and just love one another and look out for each other.”

It is Oates’ strong sense of duty and commitment to community that makes her an exemplary CHA, said Delois Walton, the CHA coordinator for Choctaw and Marengo counties.

“You couldn’t ask for a better person to work in the communities because she’s all about helping, not just in Marengo County, but in any community that she can,” Walton said. “Ask her, and if she can be of assistance, Ms. Oates is going to do it.”

How long will Oates continue her daily mission of health advocacy and awareness?

“I’ll never quit. It’s just been my whole life’s work,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that we are here to serve. We were made to be loving to each other.”

Learn more about COVID-19 and how the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center is working to keep cancer patients and their families safe.


This story originally ran in the August 2020 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.