group photo
By El Gibson

Community Health Workers

Communities to Careers: Community Health Workers Connect Those in Need with Health, Housing Resources

Community health workers serve vulnerable populations on the front lines.

They go out into the community, develop trusted relationships with people dealing with homelessness, food insecurity, health issues or substance use disorders, and help facilitate access to health and social services.

The University of New Mexico Community Health Worker Initiative (CHWI) unit designs, evaluates and implements projects made to promote health equity and increase the well-being of all New Mexicans. 

The CHWI, which was created in 2014 as part of the UNM Office for Community Health, oversees several innovative programs that engage the support of community health workers, addressing community health issues that primarily impact low-income and vulnerable populations.

Learn more about UNM Office for Community Health


“Community health workers are a growing workforce in the U.S. Their impact is remarkable,” said Venice Ceballos, CHWI operations director. “These are individuals who live in the communities they serve. They understand the language of the populations they’re working with and they’re individuals who are trusted in those communities.”

Some of the programs operate in Bernalillo County, while others are statewide in scope.

“I have the great privilege of overseeing innovative projects,” Ceballos said. “Some programs are direct service, where we provide case management to individuals, and we also have education and outreach programs.”

These programs include Tiny Homes Village, Stable Homes and Healthy Communities, Salud es Riqueza, Pathways to a Healthier Bernalillo County, Intensive Case Management, Increasing Earned Income Tax Credit in New Mexico, Health Literacy, Health Equity, Emergency Rental Assistance Program and Community Connections. 

“We are experts at navigating social, medical and legal systems, so we’re able to help clients get the services they need,” Ceballos said. “We come to work happy and ready to help people have a better life.”

Below are some stories from various Community Health Workers.


Health Equity

Loida Varela works on the CHW Health Equity team, where she can often be seen out in the community distributing pamphlets on COVID-19 vaccines and information on holistic health. 

The team works with the New Mexico Department of Health and the Office of Community Health Workers, as well as multiple partner organizations throughout the state to provide vulnerable populations with information on available services.

“My job is to give people information on different programs that people need,” she said in Spanish. “What motivates me to do this job is to think about the need that exists in our community and offer people aid.”

The Health Equity team works in areas with high social vulnerability, including those that are most vulnerable to historic health inequities and the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnering with statewide community-based organizations ensures that efforts are community-driven.

Varela often participates in community outreach at The Rock at Noonday, a faith-based nonprofit that provides food for houseless populations, along with other necessities such as clothing, showers, day shelter, mail service and more. 


“In this place (The Rock at Noonday), we are offering information about the COVID vaccines, and answering questions that people have,” she said. “This place is offered to people who are homeless, who have nowhere to live. They come to eat here, and those are the services we provide.”

Varela’s primary language is Spanish, so she’ll often assist Spanish-speaking people, as well as those who speak English. And sometimes, she will assist people who speak neither.

“Most of the time, we are giving information in Spanish, but we also speak English,” she said. “There are also people who are refugees from other countries who do not speak English or Spanish, and in this case, we have brochures that we can bring to them so that they can be provided with the information they need.”

Varela said she loves being able to help people find information, services and aid. 

“It is very important that people know that we are in the community, that we are here to serve them, and we are here to offer them everything they need,” she said.

It is very important that people know that we are in the community, that we are here to serve them, and we are here to offer them everything they need.

Loida Varela, Health Equity CHW

At one community event, Varela said she connected a family of refugees to a health clinician, so the children could get vaccinated.

“This family came from another country; they were refugees. The mother did not know where to take her children to see a doctor so her children could receive their immunizations,” she said. “We were able to put them in touch with the clinics and give them the information they needed. It was very satisfying to help them.”


Tiny Home Village

In overcoming the U.S. homelessness epidemic, it’s imperative to explore creative and innovative ideas. 

In 2019, Bernalillo County secured a 30-year lease on a property owned by the Albuquerque Indian Center and constructed a walled and gated community of 30 tiny houses. 

The goal was to provide transitional living accommodations for the houseless population, complete with lockable doors and climate control to give residents a strong sense of security and permanence. Approved residents began moving in February 2021.

“There’s so much stigma around the unhoused population. People think they’re lazy and don’t want to work, but what the community doesn’t understand is that we’re looking at years and years of generational trauma, severe substance use and severe mental health issues,” said Savannah Courtenay, Tiny Home Village’s sole social worker. “Through our work, we’re able to educate the community on what these people are really dealing with.”



In order to address some behavioral health concerns, the village hired Courtenay last year so residents could get additional support. Along with the hire, the village implemented different programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and relapse prevention. There’s also group therapy, weekly one-on-one meetings and daily check-ins to help foster relationships.

“The people I serve are truly one-of-a-kind individuals. They’re warriors. They’re people who have been through some of the worst things imaginable,” Courtenay said. “They’re vulnerable but they’re survivors.”

The people I serve are truly one-of-a-kind individuals. They’re warriors. They’re people who have been through some of the worst things imaginable.

Savannah Courtenay, Tiny Home Village CHW

Courtenay added that her favorite part of the job is working with people.

“They drive the work that I do, and what I love most about working with them is, not only am I able to teach them new things, but I’m a learner as well,” she said. “I love learning new things from my clients and I learn something every single day with every single interaction I have.”

As part of the requirements, residents must be willing to take part in a harm reduction or recovery program and not use drugs or drink alcohol within the village. The village’s employees also help residents regain self-sufficiency, by assisting with employment opportunities and other services.

“I often reflect on my own past and what I’ve been through,” Courtenay said. “I do this work because I wish I had somebody when I was going through really hard times.”

The small houses, which are all painted different colors, feature the same layout. Each 120-square-foot home comes with a desk, two chairs, a bed, a closet and a stoop. At the center of the village lies the “Village House” where residents can cook, do laundry, watch television, socialize, use the internet and access a library.

“Walking into the village and seeing the smiles on my clients’ faces – they know they have advocates, and they know that they have support,” she said. “They know that they’re going to get their needs met by the work that we do.”


Community Connections

Another way the Community Health Worker Initiative is combatting homelessness in the area is with the Community Connections Supportive Housing (CCSH) program.

In partnership with the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County Department of Behavioral Health Services, the CCSH program provides tenant-based permanent supportive housing.

The program currently helps more than 600 individuals with behavioral health needs who are either houseless or precariously housed, have criminal justice involvement and/or are frequent utilizers of emergency room services. CCSH provides housing vouchers for qualifying individuals and families who are experiencing chronic homelessness.



“We build bridges between the client and the available resources in our community so we can find solutions for people to overcome barriers,” said Natalie Wray, a CCSH community health worker. “Working out in the community involves a lot of listening, talking, walking and learning. We educate, we advocate, we support, and we bring awareness to increasing quality of life in the community.”

We build bridges between the client and the available resources in our community so we can find solutions for people to overcome barriers.

Natalie Wray, Community Connections CHW

The CCSH staff provides intensive case management to those on the waitlist for a housing voucher.

About once a month, Wray and other CCSH staff go out into the community and attempt to locate people who are on the waitlist. While they’re out on the streets, they will also distribute hygiene products and other necessities.

“When we come out here down on the streets and do outreach, we assemble hygiene bags or bags for the weather, and we give them out to everybody that needs them,” she said. “And then while we're doing that, we locate people that are on our waitlist so we can provide intensive case management while they are on the waitlist so they can eventually go through the process of getting a housing voucher.”

There are currently four in-house community health workers in the CCSH program, each of whom carries a 15-20 client caseload and does two in-person visits per month.

“What gets me motivated to go out and do outreach is having a supportive team, and also learning about the new projects that are coming available and being able to be part of it and the outcomes of each project,” she said. “I also enjoy connecting with people in the community.”

Categories: Communities to Careers, Community Engagement, Top Stories