Isaac Rugali holds an applied biology degree from the University of Rwanda and is a licensed medical interpreter. Nira Kandel has worked to combat human trafficking and aid displaced youth in Nepal, and has degrees in law, social sciences, and rural development. Biram Saidybah is a licensed mental health first-aid worker and certified recovery coach.
They are bringing that diverse experience to a new role: community health worker on Manchester’s new Public Health and Safety Team. They will be joined by five others with equally varied backgrounds on a new city initiative intended to flip the social service model. Rather than wait for residents to call the police or city officials for help with a housing, food, or a medical crisis, the city is sending these health workers to residents.
And that help will be available in multiple languages: collectively they speak nearly 12.
“We get a call because their plumbing was shut off or they may have other needs, … and just like in the olden days when doctors used to do house visits, they walk in and assess that environment,” said Anna Thomas, city health director, at a press event on June 21 introducing the team. “And we end up coming up with a list of things that that person probably needs. Our community health workers now can help prioritize those needs … and then also follow up with these individuals because it’s not a one and done.”
Those calls mostly go to the police, yet city officials found that fewer than 10 percent required a police response. The new initiative has the support of Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, who said the community health workers will free up his officers to focus on police calls and violent crime by connecting residents with city staff who can more effectively help them.
The team is currently assisting 62 residents with housing, child care, behavioral health, employment, food, and clothing challenges, among others. They are helping residents find assistance and fill out applications. They are also available to translate and will follow up with residents to ensure they got the help intended.
Workers have also begun responding to drug overdose calls alongside the police and following up to ensure people are connecting with organizations or treatment that can help them. Thomas said the city intends to add a worker dedicated to working with seniors.
Thomas expects calls to jump with last week’s announcement. Residents can request a worker by calling (603) 665-6841 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. While the city provided the media a contact number and email for each worker, that information is not yet available on the city’s website.
The city is using some of its $43.2 million in American Rescue Plan money to fund the effort over the next five years and has been recruiting team members, all of whom live in Manchester, since late last year.
Each of the city’s 12 wards will have a dedicated worker, though team members can respond to calls in other wards if their language expertise or background is a better fit.
Saidybah, who holds degrees in public health, science education, and business administration, is supervising the team.
“One thing that is common about us is that we know the city and each of us is a trusted member of the communities we serve,” he said at last week’s press event. “And each of us is multicultural and multilingual.”
Other team members include Marie Chantal Umuratwa, a former community health worker in Rwanda; Luisa Leger, a former medical assistant and correctional officer in the prison’s forensic unit; Gabriel Ajao, a former chemistry teacher who studied in Nigeria; Wanda Castillo, a longtime community health worker with Amoskeag Health; and Nicha Ntiotia, a former licensed nursing assistant and banker.
Thomas said the city has intentionally hired people who look like the community, one of the most diverse in the state, and have overcome their own challenges.
“They have learned from real experience how to pull themselves out of that and succeed and that’s why they’re here today,” she said. “They can directly relate to when a resident is struggling. They know what that feels like. That is one of the most powerful things that they’re able to bring because they can connect residents and build that trust immediately and much more quickly than we can do just collectively as city departments.”
Mayor Joyce Craig said that same intentionality drove the city’s “community schools initiative” in 2014, which put three community health workers in five elementary schools.
“We see these public health professionals as trusted resident liaisons who can lift the voices of so many of those who are often forgotten or unseen,” she said. “It can be a source of hope and inspiration for those who need us most, and also serve as the eyes and ears and boots on the ground to what is happening throughout the community.”
This story was written by Annmarie Timmins, senior reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.