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Promotoras Finding Greater Demand For Their Skills

A growing career field is attracting many Texas Hispanics. The job of community health worker, known as promotoras in Spanish, is drawing many non-traditional students back to the classroom.

In a classroom on San Antonio’s West Side, women of all ages were learning the latest on the Zika virus, an emerging public health concern.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Students in the community health workers program learn about the Zika virus.

"You have to be able to listen to the rumors or the fears and then answer them with facts and evidence," explained Fernando Martinez, Ph.D. He trains community health workers for San Antonio’s Northwest Vista Collegeat a campus called the Westside Workforce Education and Training Center (WETC).

More than 400 graduates of the program are already working for South Texas hospital systems, Planned Parenthood, the Food Bank, even insurance companies. Almost all of the promotoras return to their home neighborhoods to serve.

They have the ability to influence behavior. ~ Fernando Martinez, Ph.D., promotora instructor

"They go back into communities that they very much identify with culturally, linguistically, and by life experience," Martinez said. "Clinicians often don’t have the time to really have an influence on the individual’s behavior.  The community health workers who does develop a relationship with those folks, they have the ability to influence their behavior in a more positive direction which helps them manage the effects of the disease."

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Future promotoras can train at the Alamo Colleges Westside Education and Training Center.

The Latina women in this class bring a cultural perspective. "So, so many people, they don’t know about the mosquito because they don’t have the time," one student observed. "Sometimes they don’t watch TV. They don’t have any news. Especially the Mexican, they don’t care. I mean, they’re macho. They’re not going to get sick."

While 90 percent of the promotoras the college graduates are women, Martinez would like to see more men get involved. There will be more chances for employment in the field soon. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this field will grow by double digits in South Texas , 13 percent, by the year 2024. The Department of Labor reports the starting salary for a certified community health workeris $33,000 a year. And it's higher for those with an associates degree. Melanie Jauregui is a bilingual trainee from the South Side of San Antonio who's making public health her career.

I know what my community needs. ~ Melanie Jauregui, promotora student

"I know what my community needs. I feel like it’s my opportunity to be a voice, be an advocate, for their health," Jauregui said.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Students are of all ages and from various backgrounds.

Fellow promotora student Maricela Garcia has a bachelor's degree in biology. Family and friends welcome her health advice. "They don’t want to go to the doctor and ask questions," Garcia explained. "My mom would always ask me questions and I would always help her as best as I could."

One graduate, former housekeeper Zulma Tovar, works for the U.T. Health Science Center at the Robert B. Green clinic downtown. Some 80 percent of the family medicine patients there live below the poverty line. Tovar is one of nine promotoras who help very sick people manage the stress of their health issues.

Being a promotora helped fulfill her personal desire to serve. "I was thinking, like, there had to be something that I wanted to do and help people. It’s very rewarding," Tovar said.

They bring the story of the human being behind the disease. ~ Dr. Carolina Gonzalez Schlenker, U.T. Health Science Center

Her supervisor, Dr. Carolina Gonzalez Schlenker, says promotoras are effective in the Hispanic community where trusting relationships are very important.

"They are considered trust-builders. They work from the heart," Schlenker stated. "If I was going to put it in one word, they bring the story, the story of the human being behind the disease."

Community health workers are projected to be in high demand over the next few years.

Maricela Lopez raised five kids before she went back to school to train, in part, because she wanted to inspire her children to pursue higher education. And it worked. "Now my kids’ mindframe has changed from not wanting to go to college into wanting to go to college," Lopez said as she beamed with pride.

Northwest Vista College graduates about 40 promotoras a year. Online classes are attracting students from all over Texas. There are no prerequisites for the program and scholarships are available.

Credit University Health System
Promotoras help patients at the Family and Community Health Clinic at University Health System's Robert B. Green Campus downtown.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.