Students overcome language barriers

Salvador Ortega's goal was to transition out of construction and agriculture jobs, and become a registered nurse.

That goal changed, though, after Ortega, a Woodlake resident originally from Michoacán, México, was struck in early 2010 with a serious auto-immune disorder, and lost all feeling and movement below his neck.

With the help of a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, Ortega has since regained much of his movement. However, he still wears braces around his ankles to walk and has little control over the tremble in his hands.

But none of that stopped him from participating in a program that has helped prepare him for his new dream job. As a physical therapist, "I could assist many people who need help," Ortega said in his warm, optimistic way, showing no trace of his illness.

Ortega is one of 11 students who recently completed the 290-hour Vocational English as a Second Language Health Program, a collaboration between Proteus, Inc. and Family HealthCare Network. The program trains English-learning students to become promotoras (community health workers) and provides them with the skills and knowledge needed to pursue other careers in the healthcare field.

Through the program, the students spend 150 hours in the classroom, improving their communication skills in English, mastering health terminology, and learning job skills.

They also log 140 hours of service learning at Family HealthCare Network, where they learn to enroll families in programs like Medi-Cal and Healthy Families, provide translation services, and present information about asthma and diabetes at events like health fairs and flea markets.

"They are very unique in their talents," Isabel Olmos, community relations program coordinator at Family HealthCare Network, said of the 11 students who completed the program. "They can speak the language and they are culturally sensitive. What more could we ask for?"

The students overcame language barriers and family issues as they participated in the program.

But Ortega's situation stands out, Olmos said. Ortega, who is currently studying at College of the Sequoias, was hospitalized again in May.

"He has an illness ... but he was out there with us," she said. In fact, she said, his experience made him an especially effective promotora, because he could relate to other people who have health conditions that require maintenance and attention.

The program has motivated Blanca Vaca, of Woodlake, to continue working as voluntary promotora after the program.

Vaca said there is a huge need for promotoras in her 90.6 percent Latino community in Tulare County. Many people, she said, do not know where they can get their children vaccinated, or what type of illness they have, but are afraid to ask.

"We are the intermediaries between the clinic and our community," said Vaca, who has worked as a waitress for 18 years. She is also working toward her associate degree at College of the Sequoias, and intends to become a registered nurse.

María Hernández, of Strathmore, also plans to work as a promotora.

"I love the work of a promotora because I love working with people," Hernández said. "I like it because I feel like I'm doing what I'm meant do to -- help people, and inform them about the different programs available.

There are three spots left in the next Vocational English as a Second Language Health Program.

Details: Larriann Torrez at (559)733-5423.

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