United Methodist Volunteers, also known as Community Health Workers, are women and men of all ages living in difficult-to-reach places. These frontline workers are trusted community members, having an in-depth understanding of the community they serve. They are also blessed with patience and compassion to alleviate complex medical and social needs.
CHWs are at the core of the UMC Abundant Health Initiative– a global connection striving for mental, physical and spiritual well-being. CHWs tailor their activities according to the context, the need and their training. In most instances, they are usually peers in their community.
This cadre is often the most successful, due to their shared roots and identity with the neighbors with whom they are working. A selected few are trained. If not, they undergo a learning process while they continue supporting their communities. Take the case of Sekai, a Zimbabwean mother of two children. Tragically, she lost four other children to malaria because the religious sect to which she belonged forbade medical treatment. She left that group in sorrow, and in 2014, she was chosen to become a CHW and reach out to her own people. Sekai attends to more women and children from the sect than any other group because she has been one of them. She is trusted and welcomed by the community. Sekai’s clear purpose with malaria is to test, treat and track!
Each CHW in Central Congo’s Maternal, Newborn and Child Health program is responsible for roughly 20 families. Their role is to encourage pregnant women to attend four prenatal visits to know their expected dates of delivery and to give birth at a health facility. CHWs are true bridges between communities and health facilities. The CHWs encourage parents to take their children for immunizations. They ensure children are weighed regularly. They are also equipped to screen all children under 5 years of age for malnutrition. CHWs are not about diagnosis and treating, but rather guiding women and parents to health facilities. The World Health Organization encourages this ongoing linkage to health professionals for best practices.
The role of CHWs in the autonomous region of Nicaragua is more comprehensive. They are an intrinsic component of the health system because few health facilities and communities are dispersed across a large range. Clusters of homes can be reached by foot, boat or horseback. Volunteers in each target community keep an ongoing census of pregnant women and of children under 5 years of age, especially those children who are malnourished or have symptoms of diarrhea, pneumonia or malaria.
Anita Perez is a CHW in Tashba Pri. She is a community midwife of nine years and currently has six pregnant women in her care. This year, she had an internship with the local government. She is responsible for prenatal care and for preparing each mother for delivery, optimally at the health facility. The project supplies her with gloves, alcohol, gauze, a raincoat and a backpack, among other work materials. All this helps because Anita does not receive monetary compensation. “I like the work I do,” she says, “because I help women who need it. … In most cases, I accompany pregnant women to attend maternity homes because they feel safe when I go. What I like the least … are the long walks. … For example, Tungla … is a six-hour walk from here.”
CHWs can and are taking an active role in the delivery of community-based health care closely linked to health facilities. CHWs over time have demonstrated that they can effectively deliver selected maternal, newborn and child health and malaria prevention and treatment. They distribute commodities that were once an exclusive function of formally trained health workers. However, it is always important to consider the ethics of volunteerism – by being respectful and not asking more of these communities, many of whose members are farmers, schoolteachers and mothers.