Insights from the Field: LaKerry, Community Health Worker

May 2022

The Community Health Workforce provides tremendous and often unseen value to the communities they serve. In this three-part series, CHAP introduces a peer recovery specialist, a community-based doula, and a community health worker, and shares what sets them apart from other healthcare professionals.

For the past 14 years, LaKerry has been a community health worker (CHW) in Baltimore, MD. She is proud to use her lived experiences to “make a difference, change lives and provide something that the world needs.”

As a black woman, LaKerry has firsthand experience with the challenges  of receiving adequate care. She recalls seeing her mother and grandmother work hard on a daily basis, but when it was time to receive care, they didn’t get what they needed, or what they deserved. When her grandmother started to decline cognitively, LaKerry expressed concerns to her grandmother’s provider that she was showing clear signs of dementia. The provider implied that she was “just getting old.” Since LaKerry was working at a clinic at the time, she knew that they had a dementia-specific clinic and took her grandmother for an evaluation. Thanks to her own advocacy, her grandmother was able to get an accurate diagnosis. Moments like these brought LaKerry to her work as a CHW, recognizing that when someone has an advocate, they are more likely to get the care they deserve.

What is a CHW and what sets them apart from other healthcare professionals? LaKerry defines a community health worker as someone who is able to teach others to advocate for themselves, and is able to provide resources to help overcome barriers. A CHW connects individuals to holistic care and systems that people might not even know are available to them. LaKerry sees her role as making sure that a person is aware of what resources exist and the type of treatment they should expect from providers and healthcare practitioners. “A CHW is there to put everything together and show up with lived experience to offer support to someone that may not be aware of how to advocate for themself.”

LaKerry described her role as a CHW in three different aspects: community outreach, case management, and home visiting. While every week is different, a typical day might include volunteering at a church or community center where she could see 50-60 people and offer health care resources. Alternatively, she might focus on case-management responsibilities and help individuals attend doctors appointments, coordinate transportation, coach clients as they prepare to meet with their care team at the hospital, or support them on the day of hospital discharge. LaKerry also does home visits. Home visits might involve bringing supplies to a family or connecting people who haven’t recently seen a provider to care.  Making those connections to care include helping clients schedule appointments, filling out forms, and linking to mental health resources. “You should see the little children’s faces light up when you come in with all the resources.”

Working with such a varied caseload brings LaKerry face-to-face with many unique experiences. One of her most rewarding experiences was working with a family that she initially did not feel she was connecting with. After six months of conducting home visits, supporting the client at the hospital, and sharing information, she felt that the information was not being well received. However, to her surprise, she was getting through to another member of the family. One day when LaKerry was hosting a CHW open house, that family member showed up and expressed that he completed all of the training and credentialing and wanted to become a community health worker himself. In that moment, LaKerry was surprised to see him, but was reminded that “No matter how much you feel like you are not making a difference, you should still show up and offer resources because you never know who’s listening.”

The work is rewarding, but can also be challenging. “Seeing people in poverty really hurts, you see how much money is being spent in the healthcare system and there is no reason that care should be inadequate. When visiting someone’s home and seeing they don’t have food or lights aren’t on, it’s not fair game.” By putting a system in place where families can readily access all the resources they need, LaKerry hopes she can empower individuals to get the care they need. LaKerry also recognizes that in order to strengthen the healthcare ecosystem, CHWs need to be equipped with adequate training, such as motivational interviewing, mental health 101, or how to conduct hospital rounds.

In addition to working individually with families in the community to positively impact their health, LaKerry also has opportunities to influence policy as the chair of a statewide CHW advisory committee. LaKerry’s lived experience as a CHW gives importance to her voice and informs policy decisions. She has been on the Maryland State Community Health Worker Advisory Committee for two years and has been able to support the accreditation of CHW training programs across the state of Maryland. This is an important milestone since so few states have accredited training for CHWs.

“If you’re interested in becoming a CHW,” says LaKerry, “make sure that you are doing it for you—for you to help someone, for you to change the world. This is not a role that you walk into when your heart’s not in the right place. This is public service work! You are not doing this for self-gratification or a paycheck, you are doing this for your community.”

LaKerry is hopeful that a shift is slowly happening in the healthcare landscape. “Change is going to come,” she says, “we may not see the whole system change, but when we see changes everyday in little things, that gives us hope.”