By Emily Blevins
Community Education Group
For Jason Lucas, Director of Education at Community Education Group (CEG), spearheading the CHAMPS program for the 30-year-old nonprofit is more than just part of a job. “Fundamentally, it’s about connecting people to care,” says Lucas. CHAMPS, or Community Health and Mobilization Prevention Services, is one of CEG’s signature educational programs and works to train Community Health Workers (CHWs), frontline public health workers who are trusted members of the communities they serve.
When CEG started the CHAMPS program in 2004, it was geared towards training CHWs in the District of Columbia.“Back then, because D.C. is a population-dense, metropolitan area, you could operate out of a central hub,” says CEG Executive Director A. Toni Young. “But in retooling the program to train CHWs in West Virginia, we had to think differently about how this curriculum needed to be structured and delivered, and how we could overcome logistical challenges to ensure a low barrier of entry into the training program.”
In D.C., the CHAMPS curriculum focused on training CHWs on resources, programs, and care initiatives focused on HIV/AIDS. The current curriculum still focuses on HIV/AIDS, but given the specific needs of Appalachia, it also folds in information on resources for substance use disorder and recovery, as well as hepatitis C. The program’s curriculum is built from material from Boston University, the New England Public Health Training Center, and new modules that CEG developed in concert with Dr. Tamara Henry at The George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health.
Currently, CHAMPS is a virtual training program, with participants joining in from across the state. However, there are also three centralized locations in Charleston where individuals can participate in the virtual training but also have face-to-face engagement with their peers at the site.
“Because the pandemic made everyone more familiar with virtual learning and meeting platforms like Zoom, we have more options when it comes to making the program more accessible to a broader number of people,” says Lucas.
CHAMPS also uses a learning management system that has low bandwidth requirements, so the entire training program can be completed on just a cellphone.
Lucas says that CEG’s CHAMPS program is more intensive than many other CHW training programs because of the sheer length of exposure and engagement with the curriculum. As it exists now, CHAMPS is a 147-hour training course that takes place over the span of six weeks, and its curriculum focuses on resources around HIV/AIDS, substance use disorder, addiction recovery, and viral hepatitis. “We provide stipends to all trainees in the program because if we want them to attend an all-day training and to graduate well-equipped from the program, we have to make sure that the program itself isn’t keeping them from the things they need to live their lives or that they don’t have to get another job to be able to afford to be in the program,” he says. “We can’t ask someone to give up six weeks of their pay and also expect them to be able to graduate from the program.”
In addition to training CHWs across West Virginia, CEG is also working within the legislature and advocating for the state to include a certification requirement, as well as lift regulations so that community health workers–those that CEG trains and those already in the field–are able to bill their services to Medicaid.
“West Virginia needs community health workers, and expanding the resources available to fund CHWs would mean that we could create more jobs in the state while also connecting more people to the care they need,” says Lucas. “The extra boon here is that we’re training CHWs in the communities they’ve lived in for most, if not all, of their lives.”
Lucas emphasizes that trust relationships are important bridges for public health. “Culturally, I think Appalachians have a distrust of outsiders, and there’s a wealth of history that backs this up. Similarly, Black communities also tend to have a well-justified distrust of the medical system, which again, is a byproduct of a really shameful history,” he says. “CHWs who are rooted in their communities become especially vital in these contexts.”
In many ways, CHAMPS represents a second chance for individuals and communities across West Virginia. After completing the program, many CHAMPS graduates go on to become patient navigators or gain other employment working in public and community health. “It’s a workforce development program as much as it is a healthcare delivery program,” says Lucas. “A lot of times, our CHAMPS trainees are individuals who are returning from incarceration or are in recovery and are looking for a way to reconnect with themselves and their communities–and CHAMPS creates a system of care and support for both the program participants and the community they live in.”