Debbie is known by everybody at the Breakthrough Women’s Center. She participated in the Transitional Housing program about 15 years ago, and now she lives nearby and returns to the center to access resources. 

It was in the center that Cornelius Chandler, who became a community health worker at Breakthrough last summer, introduced himself to Debbie and shared about his work to support the health and wellness of our neighbors in Garfield Park.

“I met Cornelius one day up here and we hit it off,” Debbie says. This was the beginning of a special friendship.

Holistic Community Health Work

As a community health worker in partnership with Wellness West, Cornelius acts as a liaison between the medical professionals and the community members. His work includes providing adult health risk assessments and education about hypertension, diabetes, and mental health.

“I have the opportunity to increase health literacy, but also help increase health autonomy because you want to teach people to do it themselves and create this habit of checking in on their health,” he says.

Cornelius looks at each individual holistically and addresses social determinants of health, or non-medical factors that influence health outcomes. He works with community members to identify and overcome barriers by providing resources for housing, transportation, food access, or even just being a person to talk things out with.

Community Health Worker Partners with Neighbors to Improve Quality of Life 1
Community Health Worker Cornelius Chandler leads a training about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and community health work in partnership with the Chicagoland CEAL (Community Engagement Alliance) Program.

“It’s very important in my opinion to take care of people’s basic needs,” he says. He explained that when people have immediate stressors, such as gun violence or providing food for their family, they’re less concerned about addressing medical conditions. 

For Debbie who has diabetes, Cornelius has helped her get test strips and checks in about her A1C, but he also has tried to understand the larger story of her health. Debbie said Cornelius has helped with bus passes to get to work and a walker, and he’s helping her and her husband find new housing.

A Foundation of Friendship

When he is able to address basic needs first, Cornelius said, it builds a level of trust and shows individuals that he simply cares about them and their wellbeing. He is foremost a neighbor and friend who walks alongside others on their journey. 

This environment of trust is particularly important because there is a tendency toward mistrust of hospital systems among residents in our neighborhood. However, once this trust is established, this opens the door to education and conversations about health.

“You create a foundation of trust so we can get into why it’s important to take care of yourself physically as well as mentally,” Cornelius says.

He said not only does Debbie always answers his calls, but if there’s a problem she calls him first. “I think we’ve got not only a professional relationship but a friendship, a trusting friendship,” Cornelius says. This relationship has allowed him to also connect with Debbie’s husband and to work together to improve the quality of their lives.

“We have a good relationship,” Debbie says. “He’s really been a good friend, a true friend.”

Generational Impact in Garfield Park 

Cornelius hopes to connect with as many people as he can, and as their attitude and behavior toward health changes, he hopes it will spur a generational impact and increase the life expectancy in East Garfield Park from 66 in 2022

“If you’re able to help this individual care about their health, it is going to impact everyone in their family,” he says. 

Beyond providing resources and increasing health literacy in Garfield Park, Cornelius said changing perceptions about progress is fundamental to community health work and his goal of creating a long-term impact. He encourages residents to look to the positives and incremental changes before the negatives. 

“I grew up in conditions similar to everyone I’m talking to,” he says. Though his family experienced obstacles, he remembers his mom’s resolve in the face of them. “No matter what is going on, I want to be a beacon of hope and just happy. I’m able to give that to other people the way [my mom] gave it to me.”