The web Browser you are currently using is unsupported, and some features of this site may not work as intended. Please update to a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox or Edge to experience all features Michigan.gov has to offer.
Serving with AmeriCorps in healthcare
Serving with AmeriCorps in healthcare
By: CJ Whitford
My name is CJ Whitford and I started serving in Cherry Health AmeriCorps in August of 2022 at the Heart of the City location as a community health specialist. After I graduated college in May 2022, I wanted a gap year experience that would prepare me for medical school and teach about systemic issues in the medical field which I am passionate about. This new position at Cherry Health under Public Health AmeriCorps interested me, especially since I would be serving in my hometown of Grand Rapids.
Before serving as a community health specialist, I was not familiar with the role which is remarkably like that of a community health worker. The patient population of underserved and uninsured patients that mostly come to Cherry Health offered a unique opportunity to become a community health specialist too, because it required more resource-savvy knowledge for these patients. Also, being a Federally Qualified Health Center, I expected referring resources to patients while witnessing how Cherry Health operates would uncover more about the system of health care and add to my knowledge. My expectations were, in a metaphorical sense, shattered. I thought my advantage of being a native of Grand Rapids would prepare me well for the role, but I was quickly humbled by how ignorant I was to what resources are available and how to approach the problems patient have. The cumulative knowledge I have gained so far in my four months of service is comparable to a year's worth of undergraduate education.
Prior to serving at Cherry Health, I knew that homelessness and housing were growing issues in Grand Rapids. However now it was my responsibility to help patients that were without homes or having housing troubles get the services that they needed. Navigating the housing system was overwhelming, and I had no experience with housing, but I needed to create tools and skills for housing and other resources to serve the patients at Cherry Health.
I am fortunate to have a supportive site manager, who at the beginning of my service set me on a foundational path where I was able to grow and learn before exploring my role as a community health specialist. In the beginning, my service was centered around shadowing multiple providers and workers at Cherry Health and getting connected and meeting with people from different resources.
While shadowing, I was able to ask questions about patient needs and how the health system operates. Most providers and other employees emphasized the need for housing and food security and explained the barriers in the health system that prevent patients from getting to appointments or receiving care and Cherry Health's response to them. The conversations I had with my site's providers all centered around how to become a listener and a learner. The patients that come to Cherry Health want to be heard and comforted. Empathizing with them is a skill that needs to be practiced and strengthened by becoming aware of the social issues that pressure patients and how to release this pressure with resources or any other initiatives.
Continuing to explore Cherry Health and strengthening my array of resource knowledge, I carried the message of listening and learning from the patients I encountered to refine my empathizing skills. This path of learning more about the housing system allowed me to branch off and discover new areas of community health work where I could see opportunity to grow in my role and as a person. This created a tree of resources that I could use to navigate and best approach serving my community, integrating branches to help the community of Cherry Health patients.
After gaining more experience through shadowing and growing off the support of my site manager and fellow AmeriCorps member that I served with, I started creating my process of investigating and referring patients to resources. This began by talking to patients that were struggling from food insecurity, where I would give coupons to the Community Food Club which is a nonprofit grocery store, give patients a list of food banks or kitchens in the area, or refer patients to the insurance office at Heart of The City where they are able to sign up for SNAP or WIC. I would also supplement these referrals with bus passes of gas gift cards that my site offered, and asked patients if they had any transportation barriers. These interactions with patients regarding food insecurity turned to referrals to housing, where I was able to give out a list of resources to patients and point out the specific services that tailor to their needs or give them referrals to Health Net of West Michigan and give them a more well refined navigation of the housing system. As I interacted with more patients, I became increasingly comfortable discovering ways to help and inquiring about added resources that fill gaps in integrative care.
Since I have started my term of service, I can already feel the effect I have on patients. I have been hugged multiple times, thanked repeatedly, and I leave every interaction with patients with a positive impression and can see a positive change in the patient's demeanor after I have finished talking with them. Although I have not had the opportunity to follow up with most of the patients I have encountered, the interactions I have shared with them have added to the integrated care provided at Cherry Health. This unique year of service has challenged me to think of creative ways to overcome the barriers faced by the patient demographic here and how to investigate problems faced by patients and Cherry Health by listening and empathizing with other experiences while being a reliable source of information and comfort. However, my experiences have also exposed underlying causes of systemic inequalities in medicine, while witnessing how the business of medicine functions, especially regarding the competing dynamics between federal health insurance and privatized health insurance. Also, sometimes my service only covers subcutaneous problems of social determinants of health compared to the visceral systemic issues which perpetuate the status quo and deter change. My efforts and positive energy that changes the experience of patients and the attitude of my site help change and inspire at the individual level. However, as I reflect on my experience thus far, I am left feeling eager to learn more about how I can change systems now or hopefully in the future as a doctor.