Interview with Lowell Community Health Center: 1999 REACH Grantee

From the National REACH Coalition Newsletter:

As we celebrate REACH’s 20th anniversary, we would like to celebrate the work and success of previous grantees. Tabasa Ozawa, our NRC intern spoke with staff from Lowell Community Health Center, one of the first organizations awarded the REACH grant in 1999.

Recently, I got in touch with staff from Lowell Community Health Center, one of the original 40 organizations that had been awarded the first REACH grant, “REACH 2010,” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1999. I spoke with Sidney Liang the REACH 2010 Program Director, Sheila Och the Chief of Community Health & Policy, and Robin Toof, the external research and evaluation partner from the University of Massachusetts. Their project, the Cambodian Community Health 2010 Program (CCH 2010), addressed health disparities in cardiovascular disease and diabetes among Cambodian elders.

Robin described the CCH 2010 Program as a “one-stop shop” providing support and tools for the community. Some of the services they offered were tai-chi and meditation classes, peer support groups, cooking demonstrations of heart healthy Southeast Asian dishes, and tours of the health center and hospital. These services resulted in an increase in attendance of the programs and received positive feedback from the community thanks to their involvement from the onset of the program.

The first year of the grant was for planning. Lowell Community Health Center (LCHC) engaged in community outreach to assess what services Cambodian elders desired in their community. Community health workers met with elders at temples and barber shops and held 14 focus groups to identify their knowledge, needs, and strengths. Input was also obtained from the Elder Council whose members were patients of the health center. Staff for the program came from the community, solidifying the message that CCH 2010 was built by the people who would receive the services. By engaging community members at the initial planning stage, the community members had buy-in, and trusted the staff and agencies working in the program that became crucial for the program’s success.

When asked about the short term impact of the CCH 2010 Program, Sheila answered, “It brought the community together. The program became well known throughout the community and staff members integrated into the community temples, churches, and homes. As for the long term impact, REACH became a best practices model for LCHC’s future programs. The importance of bringing the community to the table, educating healthcare providers and social workers on cultural competency and communication were applied to programs targeting other cultural groups and health outcomes.” “Furthermore, long lasting partnerships and relationships were built with agencies such as the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association and local Khmer cable and radio channels. The local media was especially integral to the success of the program because the community’s low literacy rate made radio and TV the best source to disseminate information and advertise events.”

At the end of the interview, I asked if there was still a need for the REACH program in Lowell. “Now more than ever,” Sidney replied. “Today, racial and ethnic health disparities continue to exist for those seeking information about certain health issues and those accessing healthcare. However, over the past decade, we as a nation have learned more about health disparities, the social determinants of health, diversity, implicit bias, and institutional racism than ever before. From this perspective, we can see how remarkably ahead of the curve REACH 2010 was in 1999. Leveraging all that we have learned, the current and future REACH programs are at a privileged position to make robust changes to eliminate health disparities. “With this data we now know what we are talking about, and it is crucial that REACH continues to be funded so that organizations across the United States can implement community led programs to promote health and resilience.”

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