Lillie Rucker (left) and Erma Coleman (right) attend this year's socially distanced Community Health Advisor graduation from their vehicle on Oct. 12, where Rucker presents a gift card she won from Ann Littleton of the Mississippi Partnership for Comprehensive Cancer Control. (Photo submitted)Lillie Rucker (left) and Erma Coleman (right) attend this year's socially distanced Community Health Advisor graduation from their vehicle on Oct. 12, where Rucker presents a gift card she won from Ann Littleton of the Mississippi Partnership for Comprehensive Cancer Control. (Photo submitted)


Gloria Shields, a Yazoo County, Mississippi, county coordinator for the Chronic Disease and Health Disparities Program, receives a plant as a thank you gift from her newly trained Community Health Advisors at the team's drive-by graduation. (Photo submitted)Gloria Shields, a Yazoo County, Mississippi, county coordinator for the Chronic Disease and Health Disparities Program, receives a plant as a thank you gift from her newly trained Community Health Advisors at the team's drive-by graduation. (Photo submitted)

With certificates presented to smiling faces and poses for photos, several recent celebrations had the usual sights and sounds of a graduation – but with a twist. 

Drive-through gradations and socially distanced activities did not lessen the excitement of health advocates after eight weeks of training on chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Newly trained Community Health Advisors from the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center received their credentials for a new program to improve the health of their communities in Alabama and Mississippi.

For some, the graduation was the first time they actually saw their fellow CHAs in person, after two months of getting to know them through computer screens and by telephone.

In Alabama, the Chronic Disease and Health Disparities Program will fight health disparities in Bullock, Calhoun, Madison, Monroe, Talladega and Walker counties. Six Mississippi counties are also included: Yazoo, Bolivar, Granada, Humphreys, Panola and Sunflower counties. 

CHAs will conduct education outreach activities that focus on chronic diseases and ways to prevent or manage them with lifestyle adjustments. CHAs will later develop a gardening program for residents 65 and older.

Coordinators throughout Mississippi and Alabama have found creative ways to teach their CHAs and create community – even while social distancing, explained Nikki Johnson, program manager for the initiative.

“All of the coordinators have done a good job of finding unique ways to keep their people actively engaged,” Johnson said. “We’ve been really strategic, but also very innovative in the way that we’ve moved through this.”


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