Covid made health care more complicated. Two grants will help vulnerable communities in Salem navigate it

Tricia Ratliff, who runs youth services for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, explains how the house chore board works. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Two community groups in Salem will be able to provide more access to health care for their clients, thanks to a grant from Salem Health announced this week.

Mano a Mano, a Latino community resource organization, and the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency HOME Youth Services, which runs the homeless youth shelter Taylor’s house, will each get $30,000 to help hire navigators intended to connect their clients with primary care providers and health information.

Levi Herrera-Lopez, executive director of Mano a Mano, said there are five people on staff who are certified community health workers but those aren’t dedicated positions. They’re using the grant funding to make sure the organization can sustain one full-time community health worker in one of Salem’s neighborhoods to connect low-income Latino and Hispanic families find primary care providers.

“A long way to say that the community health workers that we want to deploy in the community are not always going to be focused on doing medical or clinical work. They’re making sure people have access to resources in times of need and that they have a knowledge of how to prevent illnesses through using popular education models,” Herrera-Lopez said.

He said Mano a Mano serves four areas: a farmworker housing community in southeast Salem, the Northgate neighborhood in north Salem, the neighborhood around Washington Elementary School and Independence.

He said the new community health worker will likely focus on the east Salem neighborhood near Washington Elementary.

Herrera-Lopez said members of the community who identify as immigrants are disconnected from the rest of the community and it contributes to higher risks for negative health outcomes like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

The pandemic has laid bare existing inequities within the healthcare system, with Hispanics and Latinos making up 30 per 100,000 cases in Marion County as of July 29, even though they represent about 23% of Marion County’s population.

Herrera-Lopez said there’s a need for additional literacy on health issues and the people Mano a Mano serves need to have accurate information to protect themselves from Covid.

“It’s definitely important all of the time, during this crisis all the health disparities that were present before Covid have kind of magnified and amplified the negative impact of Covid on specifically communities of color and immigrant communities,” he said.

The grant will allow Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency HOME Youth Services to hire a new youth navigator to help connect youth experiencing homelessness to services like counseling, substance abuse and doctor’s appointments. 

Tricia Ratliff, the program director for HOME Youth Services, said they serve about 60 kids a year at the youth shelter Taylor’s House and it’s too much for one case manager to handle.

“We want to be able to split the position into two and have better outcomes,” she said.

Ratliff said many of the kids they serve haven’t been to the doctor in years.

The new position will free up more time for the current case manager to find stable housing for the population they serve.

Ratliff said they serve a vulnerable but often forgotten about population aged 11 to 18 that tends to fall through the cracks of early childhood resources and mainstream services for adults. She said there are about 2,000 homeless minors in Marion and Polk counties, 500 of which are middle and high school aged.

“Our niche in serving this population is to make sure that often forgotten about population gets connected to resources and health services,” she said.

Taylor’s House had to decrease the number of people it allowed into its shelter because of Covid, and houses about 10 youth at a time.

Ratliff said the goal over the next year is to find stable funding for the youth navigator position.

Cyndi Leinassar, community relations liaison at Salem Health, said five organizations were invited to apply for the grants, which are distributed to community groups each year.

She said the groups that were chosen help address issues in the Marion Polk Community Health Assessment, a 258-page document that surveys what health systems should focus on to make the community a healthier place.

“Both of these grants are helping to address vulnerable populations and access and quality of care,” Leinassar said. 

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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.