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A Community Health Worker's Dispatch from Arizona

She was starving. She couldn’t help but eat the tomato.

This week, we’re featuring personal stories from frontline health workers all over the world. It’s just one of the ways we’re celebrating World Health Worker Week 2018.

Here they tell us about the clients who’ve moved them, the moments that keep them coming to work each day, and what it’s really like to provide health services on the front lines.

Today’s post features Maria Valenzuela, a community health worker who serves some of the most vulnerable communities in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States through the organization Esperança. Today she’s using her story and the storytelling training she received through Medtronic Foundation and IntraHealth International to advocate for policy changes that will help her community.

Learn more about what she's accomplished in the video above and read her inspiring story below.

A community health worker’s dispatch from Arizona, United States:

In 1979, my mother brought me to this country, chasing the American dream.

We settled into a disadvantaged community in Arizona. My mother was young and determined to make a better living for herself and her 6-year-old daughter. We lived in a trailer. I remember the water from the shower head would fall right over the toilet. My bed was stuck to the wall and so was the kitchen table.

I remember one hot, summer day, my mother gave me five dollars and sent me to the store. The walk was about seven blocks, but to a starving child, it seemed more like seven miles. I had to buy one package of ground beef, a lettuce, one tomato, and corn tortillas.

My mother yelled at me that I wasn’t the only person starving.

I did as I was told, but I was so hungry that by the time I got home, I had eaten the tomato. My mother yelled at me that I wasn’t the only person starving. It was selfish of me to eat when others were hungry.

Things did not get better for my mother and me. She had trouble finding work, juggling her own needs with the needs of her daughter. My mother’s American dreams were slowly but surely dying.

At age 13, I ended up in the foster system. My mother lived with an abusive husband and she could not care for me any longer. I never returned home.

I don’t blame my mother for all that went wrong in our lives. She thought this country would offer us a better life. My mother didn’t have the knowledge and the support system she needed to help herself or me.

At age 14, I knew I didn’t want to end up like her. I knew I had to fight for myself. I had the tenacity, the ganas—what we call desire to succeed.

My own success in making it through my childhood is a result of determination, but also of luck. I have seen so many just like me fall into the system. What if they had had resources to help them deal with the poverty and the lack of education? What if the poor and sick had a proper entryway to health care?

Seventeen years ago, I started working for Esperança, which means hope. Our mission is to improve health and provide hope for families in the poorest communities of the world through sustainable disease prevention, education, and treatment.

Now I’d like to tell you a little story about a girl I met through this work, named Savanna.

When I met Savanna, it was as if I was looking at a young version of myself. Savanna’s situation was different, but her risk of falling into a cycle she could not come out of was exactly the same as my risk had been. She had lost both her parents to drugs. She and her brothers became foster children. Years later, she lost a brother to a drunk driver. Savanna eventually went to live with her grandmother, who was also just trying to get by.

Savanna could’ve easily become a statistic, a drug addict, a teen mother. She could’ve fallen between the cracks.

I’ve seen poverty all over the world. My takeaway: poor is poor.

I met Savanna at a community center where I was assisting in Esperanca’s Christmas Angel program—a program that provides Christmas gifts for families in need. As I helped her grandmother fill out the Christmas Angel form for Savanna, I was drawn to this beautiful little girl. A few years later, her grandmother also signed her up for Esperanca’s nutritional pilot program.

The greatest health risks for poor communities are obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic tooth decay. These are not random facts. They are the little things that most of us take for granted that plague my community: proper foods, hygiene, safe parks, access to health care. How can anybody follow their American dream when they can’t or don’t know how to take care of their basic and essential needs?

Through this class, Savanna learned about the importance of reading and understanding food labels. She learned about positive body image, and how to advocate for healthy snacks at her school. And how oral health affects our overall health. Because of these classes, the chances of her becoming diabetic have decreased, the chances of her having tooth decay have decreased, and because she’s a foster child and under the Affordable Care Act, she saves everyone money because she has learned about prevention.

Throughout my life, I’ve seen poverty all over the world, from Maricopa County, Arizona, to communities in Latin America. My takeaway: poor is poor. The same issues that hinder my community plague every economically challenged community around the world. Sure, there are differences, but every community is filled with children who have hope, children who have dreams.

They identify with me because I’ve lived their struggles and they see esperança in me.

Sometimes, as I drive through my community, I can still see that little girl carrying the groceries she bought with five dollars from her mother. She was starving. She couldn’t help but eat that tomato. This is why I can’t leave this community. I know them; they know me. I speak their language, they trust me, they identify with me because I’ve lived their struggles and they see esperança in me.

Savanna is now a young woman who is extremely involved in her school and community, and about to graduate from high school. She is planning to attend Arizona State University, and just last week, I had the pleasure of helping her apply for a scholarship. I’m confident that she will receive it and anxiously wait for her success. Savanna and thousands of young women like her deserve a chance to chase the American dream—a dream that is painfully elusive to the poor.

Were it not for resources like Esperança and others, Savanna would not have stood a chance.

Read more posts in this series. Watch Maria's video and others like it. And join the conversation online: #HealthWorkersCount #WHWWeek

This post is based on Maria’s talk at SwitchPoint 2017, which was the first time she shared this story with a wider audience.

This storytelling initaitve is a collaboration of IntraHealth International and Medtronic Foundation.