In August, 2023 Erin Braasch, Executive Director of WNC Health Network, interviewed Norma Duran Brown, Executive Director of UNETE. Norma shared about UNETE’s partnership with WNC Health Network and local health departments in western NC to vaccinate older adults, as well as the overall work of their organization and the community health worker model.
Learn more about UNETE at: https://unetenc.org/.
Erin: Will you please tell us a little about the work of UNETE?
Norma: Absolutely. UNETE is a very new organization. We started in 2021. So as new as it can be. The good thing is that we are rooted in two decades of grassroots effort and community work in our region – which was very, very helpful in securing a contract with NC DHHS Office of Rural Health. Because that investment in that grassroots work that allowed us to get the contract for a one year and renew for six months. And it was absolutely amazing, challenging, but amazing to be able to train and deploy 32 community field workers in our region in five counties.
Erin: And that contract was in response to the COVID pandemic.
Norma: Exactly, exactly. And it was such an experience and often I said we were building the plane while we were flying it. But, but – you know, the creativity, the commitment of people that want to become community health workers have to take the courses and pass the course and be certified was just inspiring. You know, you can relate with me – we didn’t think many many years ago that we would be executive directors – and here we are!
Erin: Norma, in addition to building and flying the plane during COVID, y’all were also partnering. So, can you talk a little bit about how during that time you were partnering with WNC Health Network?
Norma: We did, yes we did. And that was a great experience with the My Reason campaign. And we have one of our very fresh Community Care Workers sharing the experience, the reason why he got vaccinated… you know, every story you showed was inspiring. Of course when we go show one of our own, we love it. It was a great collaboration. We have it in so many meetings together, learning of the impact of using social media platforms, and supporting that work we do. Raising awareness. Prevention. Learning from you all and serving five counties. And we continue beyond that contract, which ended. We continue serving.
Erin: Well and speaking of continuing, we’re thrilled to be building on that partnership with the project that we’re doing now. So working more closely together on this project that we have funding from the National Council on Aging to support. So for the folks listening, this is a one year project that’s aimed at increasing COVID-19 and influenza vaccination rates among particularly our older, at-risk populations in our region.
We have three tracks of this project working together. So that raising awareness that you spoke about, understanding the importance of vaccinations through community-driven marketing, and education outreach. We’re also leveraging relationships with local health departments across five counties to increase access to vaccinations to clinics in some of their outreach. And then the part you’re here to talk about is connecting with individuals directly and building that trust within communities through that grassroots outreach that you all specialize in and have expertise in.
This project is really rooted in your community health worker model. I’d love for you to share with us what your experience has been so far working on this project. We’re about four months in. What have y’all achieved so far?
Norma: We are happy that we have achieved over 100 people vaccinated, which is wonderful. And you know, speak about how the community healthcare worker model is such an amazing tool. Even though we are so strategic in that our community health workers mirror the communities they serve, we were like woah the only one fitting the category of older adults on my team is me. So we were like “how is this going to work?” And I think the fact that they can identify with the sons and daughters trying to keep their parents or grandparents protected and healthy was a very important point of connection in outreach in this community. Also, you know, the skills and the talents and how seasoned our community health workers are.E verybody says “there is such an energy in their presence.” Basically because they believe what they are doing is real and tangible and is to keep people healthier and you know, living healthy lives to their full potential. And we know how certain illness, COVID-19 – the long effects that you will see, can affect all that. So, I think part of the success is, besides that we are you know in food distributions, we are present in free clinics, we have all these amazing relationships with health departments, and their support is so crucial in this matter. We are in agricultural places, in factories. Besides all that, what we are doing is that honest commitment and believing in our mission that we’re wellness for the whole person and the full community. Because…they just…a colleague said, “I love to be wherever UNETE is because the chances are that I leave with my belly filled, happy, and my soul too.”
Erin: That’s beautiful, Norma. That is really beautiful. And that you are sharing that embodied joy and commitment to supporting communities is just a beautiful thing.
So, I know that this work isn’t always easy. So what are some of the challenges that you’re facing with this project in particular?
Norma: The main challenge is related to the challenges of finding COVID-19 vaccines and vaccinators. Because we in our beautiful partnership with health departments we know they’re also facing their own challenges in providing these. And obviously before we have all these…we almost could choose, with the support of other organizations, you know vaccinators from here, vaccinators from there. Now there is not a pool to choose from. So, so that has been the greatest challenge right now. And also from free clinics and the health department, it is the same commitment to serve. So they bring us COVID-19 vaccines, they bring Shingles – very important for our elders to be protected. They also bring Tetanus and Hepatitis. So when the resources are there, the collaboration and the mutual support is very tangible. The problem is when they don’t have access to those resources. And obviously we provide non-clinician services so we have to rely on vaccines with the experts. So that has been a challenge that we wish we can do more to relieve the burden that some organizations are experiencing in this arena.
Erin: Norma, is there anything else you’d like to say about what you’re particularly feeling proud about with this work?
Norma: Mostly it’s the creativity of our community health workers team. The willingness of you all to share all these tools and platforms that we can use – the “View From Here”. Because we need everything we can put our hands on to, you know, keep doing these very challenging missions of serving through a lifespan – our community. Obviously UNETE is not doing this by ourself. I was sharing yesterday, in July only, we have reached over 1,200 people in our five counties. But, it’s not because we are doing it by ourselves, it’s because we are collaborating with so many organizations that allowed us to be present, offer our expertise, offer our resources, and outreach people and bring vaccines, bring information, and connect with resources. And the creativity, how our team, you know, “try this’ and “try that” and go to nursing homes or go to, I don’t know, places to get to know our elders and be there for them. So yeah, the understanding that this work is professional work but service too.
Erin: I really appreciate you lifting up just how wholeheartedly you and your team bring your expertise and your openness to engage and utilize the expertise of the health departments and the Health Communicators Collaborative. That is critical for us all to be able to serve our mission. So thanks for lifting that up.
Norma: We serve all, we serve all – we include pets in that “all.” We’ve vaccinated pets too! All means all.
Erin: Maybe even some elderly pets.
Norma: Absolutely. Of course, of course!
Erin: Before we go Norma, from what you and your team have learned across this project and through your years during the pandemic emergency, what advice do you have for communities trying to increase vaccinations?
Norma: Yeah, that is very very important. It’s just to tap into the wisdom of the community. The community knows what the community needs. The problem is who they are going to entrust with the knowledge to say, “This is what I need. And I want to let you know what I need. And I trust you. You are going to deliver those services, or connect me, with cultural humility.” It goes way beyond being from the same ethnicity or speaking the language. So just listen carefully and look for those representatives from that particular neighborhood, of that particular community that will be your allies and share wants, their needs, and the other one – the resources. Make that connection, build on that trust, and just be absolutely transparent. I will say what wrongly we call “communities difficult to reach,” we have very easy tools to outreach. Justas with any underserved sector of our population, we have these “tomb raiders” that we can tell when somebody is wholly present and committed or you know, there is some agenda. So I think, just be yourself, listen, and look for these crucial allies that they will trust you with their needs. And just remember to serve.
Erin: Well thanks so much for your time today, Norma. And thank you for trusting this partnership. We’re so grateful to be working with you to help build healthy and thriving people and communities in western North Carolina. For those of you listening, please stay tuned in our newsletter, we’ll be sure to give updates on how this project is finishing up. Thank you Norma.
Norma: Thank you, Erin. See you soon.