Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), a facility under RWJBarnabas Health, witnessed the prominent participation of Community Health Ambassador Irma Nolasco in the Johnson & Johnson Foundation-sponsored event called “Stories from the Heart of Health.” The event, held during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City last month, provided front-line health workers with an opportunity to share their inspiring stories and best practices in addressing local community health challenges. Nolasco, representing RWJUH Team Salud, spoke about her experiences in outreach work and the vital role of bilingual volunteer community health workers in bridging the gap between the healthcare system and the New Brunswick community.
Hailing from New Brunswick, Nolasco actively contributes to Team Salud’s Diabetes Spanish-language support group. Furthermore, she has been instrumental in promoting flu and COVID-19 vaccinations in the community. She tackles the barriers and questions that residents have about the vaccines, ensuring accurate information reaches them.
Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic, Nolasco emphasized the fear, lack of information, and high-risk situations that the community faced. In response, she and her team took the initiative to share truthful and direct information from medical sources. They disseminated this information through various channels such as bodegas, local businesses, and social media platforms in both English and Spanish. Their efforts aimed to build trust among the community, encourage testing, and facilitate vaccine sign-ups for COVID-19 and flu.
Originally aspiring to be a teacher while growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, Nolasco had to put her dream on hold when she immigrated to the United States to join her husband. The cost of education and her unfamiliarity with the English language posed challenges. However, she remained determined to help others.
Nolasco’s journey of helping and serving others began as a cleaner at a rehabilitation clinic. Despite having limited English proficiency, she provided comfort to patients through simple gestures like patting their hands. This experience highlighted the significance of human warmth and the need for individuals to have someone to talk to.
Her dedication to helping others continued as she became involved with a group called Women of Social Justice in her parish. This group focused on developing leadership skills, self-love, and mutual support. Nolasco connected with other migrant women who shared similar dreams and desires. Together, they formed strong bonds of friendship and learned about the challenges faced by their community, including domestic violence, obesity in children, and the importance of Community Health Workers in the Latino community.
Nolasco’s true calling emerged when RWJUH’s Director of Community Health Promotions, Mariam Merced, and her staff established Team Salud. This initiative aimed to recruit local Spanish-speaking residents as Community Health Promoters, or “Promotoras.”
The invitation to join Team Salud was emotional and challenging for Nolasco. It allowed her to continue her dream of educating and providing something meaningful to people. As a health promoter, she imparts information and teaches her community, offering advice and encouragement akin to that of a teacher.
To ensure the effectiveness of their outreach, Community Health Promoters in Team Salud undergo health workshops and specialized training. They learn how to conduct community health outreach effectively, including strategies for approaching people, placing flyers, and motivating individuals to take charge of their health and that of their families.
Nolasco discovered that their role as Promotoras extends beyond connecting the community to health services. They also serve as a familiar face in the community and understand the challenges faced by individuals seeking medical services. These challenges include language barriers, long working hours, lack of knowledge about available services, difficulties finding childcare for testing appointments, and fear of participation due to undocumented status. Despite these obstacles, Nolasco and her team have successfully built trust and credibility by actively sharing information and engaging with the community.
During the Johnson & Johnson Foundation event, Nolasco shed light on the obstacles faced by the Latino community when accessing healthcare services. She emphasized the crucial role played by RWJUH’s Community Health Ambassadors in bridging the gap and facilitating access to services for vulnerable communities. Furthermore, she stressed the importance of health insurance for all, highlighting how it can enhance healthcare access and promote health equity.
While Nolasco did not fulfill her original dream of becoming a teacher, she believes that she has ultimately achieved her life project and dream through her work as a promoter. She finds fulfillment in helping people in various ways, such as sharing health information and prioritizing her own and her family’s well-being. Together with her community, Nolasco aims to foster a culture of health consciousness and self-care.
The event photo showcases the participants following the Johnson & Johnson Foundation’s Stories from the Heart of Health event during the United Nations General Assembly. From left to right, the individuals featured are Mariam Merced, Director of Community Health Promotions at RWJUH; Irma Nolasco, Community Health Ambassador at RWJUH; and Silvia Cruz-Vargas, Senior Director of Global Community Impact for Johnson & Johnson.