Community health workers connect QPS families, students to services

H-W File Photo
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 16, 2020 12:01 am

QUINCY — Quincy Public Schools will have two, instead of four, community health workers this school year because of a funding change, but work will continue to connect families to resources and keep kids in school.

A $50,000 Tracy Family Foundation grant, with the possibility of an additional $25,000 if QPS raises matching funds, and help from SIU School of Medicine will fund the program in its third year. Last year, $75,000 grants from the Illinois State Board of Education, unavailable this year, and the foundation with help from SIU funded the program with four community health workers.

QPS Student Support and Family Liaison Coordinator Marilyn Smith said it's important to maintain the effort to help families and students.

"Originally the program was started to support families where students were not attending school. What we have found, and what we knew all along, is it wasn't just an I can't get my child to school problem. It was other things, other obstacles that the family faced that didn't allow that child to get to school," Smith said.

"The outcome is yes students are attending school, which is what's needed, but the true benefit of the program is the families getting the resources, the needed support, the behavioral health, the physical health, that maybe they didn't know how to get or access before and them making it a priority."

QPS alone didn't have the manpower, the networking pieces or the funding for the program. But QPS in partnership with a variety of community agencies — and grant funding -- launched a school-based health care effort offering help for families while building awareness of needs and available resources.

"Finding out where those deficits are, where those gaps are, it's actually supporting families beyond the ones we're actually physically supporting," Smith said.

Key to the program are the community health workers, who help families "navigate" community resources and become more self-sufficient.

"The whole work of a community health worker is to help grow the community resources that are already there," said Tracey Smith, executive director of the Office of Community Initiatives and Complex Care with SIU Medicine. "I don't think the number is so important as just the concept of having community health workers to be that catalyst to facilitate those conversations around next steps."

Each community health worker aims to serve 15 to 20 children, but efforts to serve just one child may connect the worker with four or five other family members also needing support and services.

"It's very fluid, too. You may pick up a family that has a ton of needs in the beginning. They stabilize, then have a crisis like COVID or unemployment and need more support," Tracey Smith said.

As community health workers network and make connections throughout the community, finding help for families happens more quickly.

"As soon as a community health worker calls, agencies know exactly where they are coming from and what needs to happen. Sometimes they go straight to the family and not have to go through the community health worker," Marilyn Smith said. "All along it's been a community-supported program — and even more now."

Tracey Smith sees Quincy's effort growing, as it has in other communities, not necessarily in numbers of community health workers but in acceptance of the workers as a focus "to bring the story to the table" Smith said. "You see other organizations growing and navigation and pathways becoming easier because of the program."

School Board member Mike Troup values the partnership with SIU, the Tracy Family Foundation and other community agencies — and the ongoing benefits it provides for students and families.

Raising funds, such as the matching funding for the grant, was challenging "even before COVID," Troup said, but needed to maintain the work.

"It's something that's going to have to be an ongoing operation to help students and families," he said. "Every year there are students and families that for one reason or another have a need."

When community health workers help meet those needs, and students keep coming to school, "everybody wins," Troup said. "No matter how great your facilities are, no matter how awesome your educational staff is and your programs are, if we aren't able to maintain a regular attendance of the students in these classrooms, in these programs, then they aren't going to benefit from it."