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Encore: Short on community health workers, a county trains teens as youth ambassadors

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The public health workforce has been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a wave of retirements is expected. NPR's Pien Huang reports on a new source of help - high schoolers learning to become community health workers.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Bithaniya Fieseha spent her whole summer taking online classes on chronic disease, mental health and contact tracing.

BITHANIYA FIESEHA: Like, I feel like people are like, oh, my God, you wasted your summer and things like that. But, like, I enjoyed that. I really enjoyed meeting up with everyone, going through all of that, the struggle, you know, doing the modules.

HUANG: It took 90 hours of a curriculum designed by the Morehouse School of Medicine followed by an internship at a local health clinic. She practiced taking weight and blood pressure readings on her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUANG: Now, on a Saturday morning in December, Fieseha is one of the first 14 high school students to graduate from the Youth Public Health Ambassador program in Fairfax County, Va. The Fairfax County Health Department is training students to become community health workers. Edu-Futuro, a local nonprofit, is helping. Director Jorge Figueredo says it takes minority students with an interest in medicine, and it gives them a head start on a career path.

JORGE FIGUEREDO: At the end of the day is that they successfully enroll in a college or a postsecondary institution where they will be able to get a degree in a health-related career.

HUANG: The program focuses on Hispanic, African American and African students from low-income families. That's because in Fairfax County, as in much of the country, these groups of people were hardest hit by COVID. Anthony Mingo from the county health department says one reason was not getting good information at the start of the pandemic...

ANTHONY MINGO: When there were already issues of mistrust. And it just created a miserable stew of misinformation, as I call it.

HUANG: One way to address the mistrust is by training local teenagers as health influencers for their peers and for their families. And the new youth ambassadors are very excited about public health. Fieseha says it was eye-opening to learn that not having healthy, affordable grocery stores close by can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes.

FIESEHA: You don't realize that these, like, things that build up within our community, like how we access our food, how we make income - we don't realize how much of an impact that makes to our mental health and our physical health.

HUANG: Nayla Bonilla, a 17-year-old junior, says she learned how the medical field has lost trust with some groups.

NAYLA BONILLA: But also, it was talking about ethical considerations which I really didn't think about. Like, it was talking about the cancer cells from a patient that was used without their consent. And it just made me think how, like, minority groups were really taken advantage of for medical research.

HUANG: Bonilla thinks she might become a pediatrician to better serve Spanish-speaking kids and parents. Fieseha wants to work on HIV/AIDS in Africa and especially Ethiopia, where her family's from. Both are among the first graduates in a pilot program that aims to train 90 students by next summer. It's just a small sliver in a Fairfax County-wide project to boost health literacy and create a more diverse pipeline of public health workers. Mingo from the Fairfax County Health Department told the students that they have a long road ahead.

MINGO: The flame that was ignited in this program - carry it forth. Public health needs you.

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HUANG: For now, in a sunny corner of a high school library after some bleak pandemic years, everyone was glad to be part of a graduation celebrating teens getting into public health.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So first, Nayla Bonilla.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bithaniya Fieseha.

(APPLAUSE)

HUANG: Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.