Community health workers celebrated and recognized for their hard work serving communities

May 22, 2023

On a sunny spring day beneath a picnic shelter at Mt. Tabor Park, Multnomah County community health workers (CHWs) sit together as they reflect on the past three years. This is the second year in a row the County’s CHWs have gathered to celebrate their incredible work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many, this moment is bittersweet. The federal COVID-19 public health emergency ended on May 11, 2023, and the federal funding that has allowed the CHW wraparound program to flourish for the past three years will also come to an end on June 30.

CHWs are frontline public health workers who are also trusted members of a particular community. Their relationships enable them to work closely with the community they identify with and ensure their clients get the resources, services and care they need.

Throughout the pandemic, CHWs found new and innovative ways to get critical, lifesaving information out to their communities; connected people to wraparound services; organized vaccination clinics; provided personal protective equipment to community organizations; and advocated for people when they experienced barriers to getting what they needed to be safe and well. 

This work is often conducted in the evenings and on weekends. They often serve people who are feeling scared or confused. Their efforts can take an emotional toll. And yet, CHWs continue to show up for their communities every single day. 

As many of the communities that CHWs serve have developed a general distrust of government, oftentimes the first part of a community health worker’s job is establishing trust with community members, explains Nimo Noor Ali, a CHW with Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). 

Nimo Noor Ali, a CHW with IRCO
Nimo Noor Ali, (left) a CHW with IRCO

“We had to first earn the trust from our communities so that when the COVID-19 vaccine was introduced, people knew to come to us to find accurate information,” said Ali. “And we had a lot of challenges because we had people saying that the vaccine was bad, but we got more people vaccinated and most of those we helped were people of color, immigrants and refugees.”

CHWs’ dedication to serving their communities is one of the reasons why the Public Health Division’s Community Partnerships and Capacity Building program first organized this celebratory event in 2022. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Jennie Brixey (Chahta, Welsh, Dutch) was a CHW for Native American and Youth Family Center (NAYA). During that time, much of her work involved food sovereignty, even leading a community cookalong where everyone got ingredients delivered to their homes, then cooked together virtually.

In July 2022, Jennie joined Multnomah County as a Native American and Alaska Native program specialist, and has helped support other CHWs since. 

Jennie Brixey, Native American and Alaska Native program specialist
Jennie Brixey, Native American and Alaska Native program specialist

“It’s been a long three years and you all have been on the front lines the entire time, keeping your communities safe, families housed, sheltered and fed,” Brixey said, speaking to the group of CHWs. 

“Even though the federal emergency order has ended, and even as the wraparound program will be ending, you will continue to be leaders and natural helpers within your communities. Thank you for everything you’ve done, for caring for your community while also protecting your families. The work you’ve done has literally saved lives. You have lifted us all up every day and today is about celebrating you.”

The impact of CHWs in Multnomah County is remarkable. Since the start of the pandemic over three years ago, CHWs helped vaccinate tens of thousands of clients, connected clients to wraparound services and worked with communities in over 52 languages. Community-based organizations, with the County’s help, hosted hundreds of vaccine clinics.

Community health workers dancing at this year's celebration

Commissioners Lori Stegmann and Susheela Jayapal, a representative from Chair Jessica Vega Pederson’s office, Health Department Interim Director Valdez Bravo and Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey all joined the celebration to express their gratitude for the CHWs’ commitment. 

“At Multnomah County, we talk about uplifting community, and literally ‘community’ is in your name: the community health worker,” said Bravo. “This is a role that is vitally needed regardless if there is a pandemic or not because in health care, there is always going to be a need for folks to be there in community with trusted partners that represent, and are from, the community.”

“Delivering care is about so much more than the care itself - truly effective care is built upon a foundation of trust, communication, cultural humility, mutual respect, and comes from a place of love. Thank you to all community health workers for both the vital role you played during the pandemic and for all you will continue to do.”

“The last couple of years have been nothing short of devastating and this group of people really stepped up,” said Guernsey. “I am so grateful for all the work that our community health workers have done and will continue to do in our community.” 

“I know that you care deeply about our community and I think about all the sacrifices you all still continue to make to ensure that our communities are engaged, have language access and all of the other incredible services you provide,” said Commissioner Stegmann. “You are the heartbeat of the community and the County.” 

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal

Commissioner Jayapal echoed these sentiments, adding, “The fact that you all have persevered through this pandemic and the fact that the effects of the pandemic continue for many of the communities we work with makes me constantly appreciate the work you do. The County would not be the County without you all.”