Compassionate and practical, school-based health workers help families connect with needed services

It’s hard to learn when your tooth hurts, or you’re cold because you lost your only sweatshirt, or you can’t see the blackboard. But at Flint’s Durant-Tuuri-Mott Community School, Mr. Lenoir is there to help.

Roderick “Rod” Lenoir, whose background in sales has helped him develop an easy rapport with just about any man, woman or child he meets, is the school’s community health worker — a new position created last year as part of the district’s community school initiative.

Lenoir says it’s the most rewarding work of his life.

“For me, working outside the office, meeting families and neighborhood residents at health fairs, parent-teacher conferences or ball games — making those connections, letting people know there are services to help — it’s such a joy,” he said.

Sherika Finklea, Genesee Health Plan Community Health Worker Coordinator and Mental Health Specialist/Health Navigator works with Roderick Lenoir to provide the best services possible to Flint Community Schools families.

Sherika Finklea, the Community Health Worker Coordinator with the GHP, oversees the work of Lenoir and 10 other community health workers as they provide services to all Flint Community Schools.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Genesee Health Plan (GHP), which employs the community health workers, and the Crim Fitness Foundation, which serves as the lead agency to coordinate wrap-around supports and programming in the Flint Community Schools (FCS), all 11 schools in the district now have a community health worker. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided $2.9 million in the 2016–2017 academic year to support community school activities and services in the district, including the community health workers.

Lenoir, along with three other community health workers, piloted the program at the elementary school level last year. Initially, the four were responsible for conducting health assessments, helping the uninsured enroll for health care coverage, providing resources and referral services, and educating students, parents, caregivers and neighborhood residents about health issues.

It was a good year. From May 2015 through May 2016, the community health workers reached almost 70 percent of the families at the four schools. They completed a total of 4,587 health assessments for 1,180 families, including 2,775 children. “This year, we will do even better,” said Lenoir.

The 11 community health workers are supported by five GHP health navigators.

“Our navigators have a great combination of clinical specialties,” said Lenoir, noting that two navigators have mental health backgrounds, two are registered nurses, and one is a master’s level social worker.

Lauren Guerra, a new community health worker at the International Academy of Flint, shadowed Lenoir to get some practical tips and on-the-job training in preparation for the 201q6-2017 school year.

Lauren Guerra, a new community health worker at the International Academy of Flint, shadowed Lenoir to get some practical tips and on-the-job training in preparation for the 2016–2017 school year.

“They are more clinically oriented, and we are more community-oriented,” said Lenoir. “The navigators are a great resource for us when we need help with specific issues — things like diabetes, hypertension or other chronic health conditions.”

The navigators’ expertise has been especially helpful as the school-based community health workers deal with issues related to Flint’s water crisis. Residents were exposed to lead in the city’s drinking water, which can cause serious health and developmental problems — particularly for infants and young children.

“Flint’s water crisis pushed us to become more intentional about our work with families, especially around good nutrition and home water filtration and safety,” said Lenoir. “The school nurses are collecting information on students and identifying those with high levels of lead in their systems. They’re collecting data on other chronic illnesses as well — attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, asthma. It is helping us — and parents — understand and deal with the long-term effects on the children.”

A big piece of the community health workers’ time is devoted to linking families with a health plan and a primary care physician, said Sherika Finklea, a former health navigator who now serves as the Community Health Worker Coordinator for the GHP.

“A lot of our families are unaware that they qualify for services through expanded Medicaid coverage,” she said, referring to a decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to extend Medicaid coverage to Flint residents impacted by lead exposure. Approximately 15,000 additional children and pregnant women now are eligible for Medicaid coverage, and 30,000 current Medicaid beneficiaries in the area are eligible for expanded services under the new agreement. In response to this opportunity, the Greater Flint Health Coalition and several local hospitals and clinics are working together to raise the quality of care and improve the health outcomes of children insured by Medicaid through the Children’s Healthcare Access Program (CHAP).

“Through outreach, we can determine what families qualify and help them apply for benefits,” said Lenoir. “And then, we can begin encouraging them to make regular visits to the doctor and dentist.”

Parent engagement is the major priority of the community health workers — and Lenoir has been gratified — actually, overwhelmed — by the way parents have responded.

“It’s a trust issue at first. A lot of our parents have lost faith, and they’re skeptical,” said Lenoir. “But when they see how we’ve helped a family, the word-of-mouth referrals start coming in. Parents open up, begin to talk and are very receptive to working towards solutions.”

The health assessments have been a great way to understand the needs of each school’s families. Across the board, the most immediate are food, clothing and housing.

“We’re taking that information, sharing it with our school nurses, community school directors and principals, and trying to identify areas of specific focus for our work,” said Lenoir, adding that each of the community health workers keeps busy doing individual follow-up as well.

Genesee Health Plan President and CEO Jim Milanowski

Jim Milanowski
Photo: Courtesy of Genesee Health Plan

Linda Gibson, director of operations for the Genesee Health Plan, said the impetus for placing community health workers in the Flint schools came directly from the nonprofit’s President and CEO, Jim Milanowski.

“He very much wants us to make a difference in this community, particularly for those residents who are medically underserved,” she said.

Now beginning his second year as a community health worker, Lenoir is eager to move beyond assessments and concentrate on follow-up — lots and lots of follow up.

“People have been so thankful for the help,” he said. “I’ve found a way to give back to my community. This job is a real joy.”

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