EVERETT — The conversation started with a direct question.
Like its subject matter, the question cut across age, gender, ethnicity and income.
“Do you know anyone who’s had cancer?”
Heads nodded around the room.
Carolina Rosas and Judith Hoiby gave a talk on breast cancer June 8 at Odyssey Elementary, south of Everett. About a dozen women attended, some carrying toddlers still rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
Rosas was nervous. It was her first presentation as a Promotora de Salud — a health promoter — for Familias Unidas, a Latino family support center in Everett.
The second group of Familias Unidas’ Promotoras graduated this month, earning their community health worker certificates through a program organized by the state Department of Health and based at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
Promotoras complete about six weeks of online training. They volunteer with Familias Unidas to spread the word to their families and neighbors about the importance of cancer screening and follow-up. While volunteering, the Promotoras gain job skills, build confidence and improve their English. They speak at community groups, churches, schools and homes.
Talking about cancer often makes people feel sad and scared, Hoiby said.
One of the women in the group at Odyssey had lost a loved one. Her family had no money to pay for treatment, she said. The women cried together and hugged. They understand what it’s like to face barriers, limitations.
“For this reason, we want to go to them,” said Veronica Martinez Jimenez, a Promotora. After her talks, at least two people have sought medical attention and been diagnosed with cancer, she said.
With so much false information about health care, the Promotoras see themselves as a critical bridge between the community, their culture and the medical world.
Hispanic families often have limited access to medical care, the women said. If they don’t have insurance or speak English, it’s difficult to see a doctor and communicate concerns. Familias Unidas, which is part of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, connects people with resources, not just Latinos. In many cases, free exams are available, including mammograms.
Yolanda Estrella got involved after calling about a breast cancer test for herself. It changed her life, she said.
She fell in love with the community service part of the Promotoras, she said. “I don’t know why, maybe some angel was pushing me.”
Together, women have a responsibility to keep talking about cancer with their aunts, sisters and grandmothers, she said.
“To say I helped the program is not right, they helped me,” she said. “I want to share this help and this passion with others.”
The Promotoras are seeing more attendees from central and southern America, with varied languages and dialects. A woman from Iran attended recently. They found common ground, shared struggles.
Promotora Alejandra Carreon summed up their message: Come to this table. We know about this sickness. We know about hope.
“This is a connection because we are building community,” she said.
Men sometimes attend the talks, often with their wives. Some were surprised to find out they can get breast cancer, too, Promotora Liliana Sprague said.
For now, the Promotoras are focused on breast cancer, colon cancer and cervical cancer. Familias Unidas hopes to expand the program with a focus on diabetes and weight management, and to recruit men for frank discussions with other men.
They recently partnered with the Verdant Health Commission in south Snohomish County. Starting July 1, Verdant will provide $94,051 a year for two years. More sponsors are needed.
Across the country, more states are developing community health worker training, said Becky Pearson, director of the public health program at Central. The online training, just a few hours a week, is free.
Out of 17 students in a recent class, about half spoke English as a second language, she said.
The aim is to reach people who are natural leaders, but may not have a professional health-care job or background, she said.
“A great person to help their friends and neighbors get their needs met, that’s what the Promotora model is all about,” she said.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; email@example.com.
Contact Familias Unidas at 425-513-2880 or familysupport.lcsnw.org/familias-unidas. Free breast cancer screening is available for women who are at least 40, have no health insurance and meet certain requirements. Make sure to leave your name and number on the recording.