By: Maury Harris

Dominique Horn is the type of neighbor people trust to watch their kids and solve domestic disputes. Helping others is a given for her, which is why she never considered her efforts “health work” until the Healthy Living Collaborative came calling.

This backbone organization organizes a cross-sector coalition that identifies and pursues community-based solutions for greater health equity. The Community Foundation believes in this model and recently supported one of the organization’s most successful programs, which cultivates Community Health Workers.

That’s where Dominique comes in. She was identified because of the trust she had established as a natural helper in her community—a vital part of this program. Though skeptical, she still registered for the 8-week training. To her surprise the course didn’t involve books or lectures. Instead, students gleaned lessons from each other’s experiences. The group of 30 dove into issues like social justice, equity, race and discrimination. Dominique said that sharing these personal stories showed that every experience matters and deserves to be heard. It gave them confidence to share their own stories and become stronger voices for their communities.

A Unique Model

The Healthy Living Collaborative creates space for these voices too, because it believes that functional communities and systems depend on one another. That philosophy is visible at its meetings, which encourage candid conversations between Community Health Workers and leaders and policymakers from housing, criminal justice, health care, education and tribal organizations.

It’s an approach that flips the traditional model inside out by asking residents about their needs and barriers first. By listening to one another, these groups can combine ideas and resources to improve lives. More importantly, they are reshaping the existing dynamic between systems and people.

The experience certainly changed Dominique’s perspective. Where she once vented frustrations about a flawed system with neighbors, she is now using her experiences to improve services and programs for everyone. Dominique has also built her public speaking and advocacy skills through the trainings offered. Now, the woman who once feared being in the spotlight is picking up the microphone at city council meetings and regional conferences.

Helping is Healthy for All

What hasn’t changed is her desire to help her neighbors. Since finishing her training, Dominique has helped to house evicted neighbors, delivered Thanksgiving food packages, joined a walking group, and taken on leadership roles related to local and regional community health work.

“You can see the sigh of relief in people when they realize that you understand their experience and they’re not alone,” Horn said. “Every time we make this connection with an individual or family it ripples out.”

Those ripples are expanding in her own life too. Becoming a Community Health Worker has inspired her to look beyond day-to-day survival and plan five and ten years down the road. She enrolled in a Bachelors program and made college an expectation for her two children who have become her miniature community organizers in training.

We’re no longer ashamed of our struggles, because we now see the lessons we learned as opportunities to grow and help others.

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