Starting a career in a health-related field can seem daunting, with the prospect of years of training presenting an insurmountable roadblock for many. But in Contra Costa County in Northern California, a pilot project is providing an entry point, even for individuals who come from difficult backgrounds.
The project, created by Contra Costa Health, a partner of Heluna Health, is called the Workforce Health Ambassador (WHA) Program. The idea sprang from a six-month pilot project designed to provide historically marginalized communities in Contra Costa with accessible COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and treatment. The first 17 “ambassadors” in that program spent thousands of hours conducting outreach in communities throughout Contra Costa, clarifying misinformation, easing fears, answering questions, and ultimately reducing health disparities.
“After only six months, we could see that the numbers of vaccinated individuals were increasing in the Latino community,” says Program Manager Ernesto De La Torre. The effect on the ambassadors was also significant, with 75 percent graduating from the program into public health-related positions. “We decided to extend the program for two more years.”
As a result of the COVID program’s success, by the middle of 2022, the county decided to partner with other organizations to create the WHA program, designed for workforce development. “This is about building a pipeline to show young adults that there are many opportunities for a career in health besides just being a nurse or a doctor,” De La Torre says.
From 2023 to early 2024, Contra Costa Health expects to hire about 40 workforce ambassadors, who will be assigned to one of three six-month programs. All will be paid a salary and will receive benefits through Heluna Health. The program is focused on hiring individuals between the ages of 18 and 30 who are low income, unemployed and/or out of school, have difficulty finding employment, or have been incarcerated, among other characteristics.
Besides professional development, the goals of the program include education, enrichment through projects and team building exercises, and exposure to public health professionals and a variety of career options in health. The program includes instructional sessions for the ambassadors, presentations from leaders of community organizations, and many hands-on opportunities for the ambassadors to practice what they have learned. Offering a chance to build communication skills, ambassadors must make two presentations to their program colleagues during the session. The first cohort began in June 2023.
“We start with tone setting; teaching the ambassadors how they should present themselves in an office setting, for example,” says Eyana Rodgers, one of two coordinators of the workforce development ambassador program. While that might seem extremely basic, it’s unfamiliar to many of the ambassadors. “We give them information about computer programs, including Microsoft Teams and PowerPoint. We want everyone to be on a level playing field.” The ambassadors attend health fairs and other events around Contra Costa County, providing community residents with information about social services and health issues. There are also plans to pair them with specific community organizations.
For Jazmin Montesinos, the ambassador program has been a great way to learn new skills and to transition out of retail, where she had mostly worked since graduating from high school in 2013. For much of 2022, she worked in a health clinic in Pittsburg, California, helping staff phone clients about appointments. When that job ended and she heard about the WHA program, she applied right away. “The program has taught me a lot,” she says. “I didn’t know about all these services that Contra Costa County offers. If we can spread the word about them, there could be so much change.
“Growing up in a Hispanic household, my family never asked for help from the county,” Montesinos says. “That was taboo. Now that I’ve learned about all these different programs, I realize that my parents should have asked for help. If there’s a program that can help you, that can change a person’s life.”
Says Rodgers, “A lot of times, people just need a chance. If we can give them a chance to start them on a new journey and be their guide, it’s worth it.”