“Hi, Pumpkin! You were waiting for me to come see you today?”
A stream of enthusiasm flows from Terri Price as she greets 8-month-old Jordan, a beautiful blue-eyed boy hanging out with his mom, Melinda Kurcharski, in their apartment on Grand Rapids’ southeast side.
Soon little Jordan is tugging on Price’s earrings and trying to eat her name badge.
“Oh my gosh, I just love him. Look at him!”
Twenty years ago Price landed her dream job—and Jordan and hundreds of babies like him are the reasons she’s never looked back.
As a certified community health worker with the Spectrum Health Healthier Communities team, Price works among women and children in medically underserved populations in Kent County, Michigan. She spends her days encouraging expectant mothers in their struggles, cuddling precious newborns and cheering for new moms as they work to ensure the health and well-being of their babies.
Community health workers serve as coaches to help people stay healthy, said José Reyna, MPA, director, Community Health Programs. They are also the eyes and ears of primary care physicians out in the field.
The work can be demanding, but it fits Price to a T.
“I don’t look at it as a job,” she said. “I look at it as (being) a change agent with regard to people’s lives. That’s my passion.”
“She’s phenomenal,” Reyna said. “It’s become intuitive for her to perceive what this person may need or even how to talk to somebody, and to get them to share some things that they may not share with anybody else.”
Price, who is also a certified doula, is one of eight community health workers with the Spectrum Health Maternal Infant Health Program, which works to reduce infant mortality and get babies off to a good start.
Healthier Communities also employs certified community health workers in programs that serve medically underserved children, support school kids with chronic diseases and help at-risk adults prevent and manage chronic diseases. Programs are offered in both English and Spanish.
Health Beat recently tagged along with Price as she visited a few of her clients.
Visit 1: Maria and Baby Jorge
Jorge probably didn’t realize it was his first birthday, but he was in a party mood—dancing, laughing and flirting with the adults in the room as he moved from toy to toy.
“Isn’t he gorgeous?” said Price. “Hello, handsome. Look at you!”
His mother, Maria Webster, was in good spirits, too. Her husband, Brent, had recently found a job, her baby was healthy—and still breastfeeding—and she had just learned that she was eligible for another year of support through the Maternal Infant Health Program.
That meant an extra year of visits with Price and her colleague, Kayla Johns, a Spectrum Health social worker.
“When she told me I could have one more year, I’m so happy,” Maria said. “We can still see each other!”
Maria said this through bittersweet tears as she recalled her struggles as an immigrant without a strong support network who was in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy and suffering from depression. The maternal infant health team became her lifeline.
“When I am in most difficult times, they are there for me, you know?” she said. “The people working in that program, they are amazing—amazing.”
Price provided encouragement, a listening ear and connections to community resources, like places where Medicaid-eligible families can get free diapers and affordable fresh produce. Meanwhile, Johns offered emotional support and paved the way for Maria to get help for her depression.
“It’s rare we meet people like this,” Maria said, explaining that she has felt isolated and suffers discrimination in Grand Rapids because of her accent and ethnicity.
“So (to) find people like them, it’s like, wow, it make me feel—it’s not because of my race, you know? It’s because I’m a person, I’m a human being. And they make me feel like that.”
Price couldn’t hold back the tears either, hearing Maria’s words.
“I didn’t know until today that she had all of this in her,” Price said, calling this a perfect example of the value of community health work.
“You are changing somebody’s family life to be a support when they have nobody else to support them. This just makes my day.”
Price visits Maria twice a month, and on this day Maria filled out a questionnaire about Jorge’s social and emotional development at 12 months. The birthday boy scored high on his assessment, but Price will connect families to additional services if a baby ever shows signs of a developmental delay.
Price also talked with Maria about her reproductive life plan—“because pregnancy outcome is better when it’s planned,” she said.
Like many community health workers, Price has credibility with her clients because she has walked in their shoes.
“I was one of those moms who experienced some of the same barriers they had in their life,” she said. “So they have someone they can relate to, knowing that I’ve lived in their community and had those crises in my life.”
The secret to successful community health work, she said, is to look beyond a client’s crisis and empower them, “knowing that they’re able to overcome those barriers.”
Visit 2: Melinda and Baby Jordan
Melinda, the mother introduced at the start of this story, is a quiet person who didn’t want to be photographed. But she’s grateful for the services she has received from Spectrum Health over the past year: home visits from a nurse, a social worker and Price.
Melinda’s been through some rough times, Price said, and she’s trying to do the right things for her new baby. Her pride was evident when Jordan scored well on the 8-month assessment Price completed with her.
With Melinda, as with all of her clients, Price took the time to get to know her up front.
“In order for someone to know that you care, you’ve got to show them that you care and meet them where they’re at,” she said.
“Our goal is to build that relationship, and once you show them that you are there for them, they’re open and willing.”
Once trust is established, Price and her clients can discuss life’s challenges, work together to map out a plan and get prepared for life with a new baby.
The list of issues Price faces with her clients is long: mental health, homelessness, daycare, breastfeeding, dental care, job hunting, education, transportation, food assistance, Medicaid, doctor visits, birth control.
“You see a lot,” she said. “Every case is different. And that’s the beauty of it, too—you see all the variety.”
Always ready with a hug, Price is an upbeat presence wherever she goes.
“What you see is what you get with me, and I tell my clients that. I say, ‘I’m an extrovert, I’m sorry. … If you’re not used to anybody being energetic or trying to (be) your cheerleader, then you don’t want me.’”
Visit 3: Voniesha and Baby Jayden
Voniesha Reeves, Price’s last client for the day, arrived at her Kentwood apartment right on time, just back from her job in environmental services at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.
She couldn’t wait to tell Price her news—she had just received a promotion at work. And she credited Price for fostering the mindset that made this achievement possible.
“Instantly I thought of you,” she told Price. “I’m like, Miss Terri was just telling me, you gotta be patient and pray and things will come.”
Price was elated: “Voniesha! Girl, I am so impressed. Oh my gosh. I’m like on cloud nine today!”
Voniesha has come a long way since she first met Price, early in her pregnancy. At the time, she had just broken up with the baby’s father and was, in her words “a big pile of a mess.”
“It was just—emotions everywhere, not knowing how I was going to provide for myself and the baby, and just going through it, just not seeing no light,” she said. “Terri was a lot of help through that time because it was just horrible.”
But then things started falling into place for her. She landed the job at Blodgett Hospital, she found a good doctor for herself and the baby, she got connected to a breastfeeding support group with Price’s help, and she regained her confidence.
Today baby Jayden is a healthy, happy 9-month-old, already up and walking. Voniesha’s sister and mom help with child care, and she’s busy planning for the future.
Her dream? To become a community health worker like Price.
“I want to give back to somebody else that’s in that spot where I was,” she said. “I feel like because I went through it, I can connect with somebody else. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I understand where you’re coming from.”
She wouldn’t be the first to follow this path, Price said.
“I think about four of my clients have gotten a job (as a community health worker) at Spectrum Health. They wanted to do what I did,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
She also has former clients who have gone on to college and graduate school and professional careers.
With the right kind of support at the right time, these women “are able to still have their dreams come true,” Price said.
“Whatever they wanted to be in life, it’s not too late.”
Seeing lives turned around is what keeps Price on the front lines of community health work.
“It’s so rewarding,” she said. “I would not trade this job for (anything) in the world.”