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A New Class of Community Health Workers Stands Ready to Make a Difference

By Julia Brown

On Saturday, December 9, 2023, the University of Houston Community Health Workers Initiative (CHWI) graduated 90 new Community Health Workers in its fall 2023 class. The event was held in the University Student Center, and María De León M.D., movement disorder specialist and Parkinson’s Disease educator, served as graduation speaker. 

Sponsored by the University of Houston Honors College, Community Health Workers (CHWs) focus on building relationships in underserved communities all over the city, assisting people of all ages and cultural backgrounds to become better informed about health and wellness issues. CHWs help community populations navigate resources to overcome negative social determinants of health—they provide health education, teach people how to manage chronic diseases, and help build community partnerships and support to provide more integrated resources to these communities. 

In order to graduate from the program, CHWs complete a 160-hour course in which they learn about topics such as women’s health, nutrition, motivational interviewing, and social determinants of health. They work on solutions to community health issues, developing logic models, evaluations, and budgets to demonstrate how their project would be implemented in their community. The course is approved by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and offered in both English and Spanish. Participants receive official state certification upon graduation.

Once fully certified, many CHWs go on to work for community centers, government departments, nonprofits, clinics, and schools. Many participants are already early career public health professionals, or and individuals who already working as CHWs but not certified. UH students train alongside community members; about 40% of the program’s enrollees are UH students. Although the training does not count for university course credit, the course is free to all UH students, regardless of major or Honors affiliation. 

Cindy Paz, the CHW Training and Research Program Director, is confident about the program’s extensive reach and ultimate outcomes. “This collaboration extends beyond community engagement; it resonates in research as well. By actively involving community health workers as advocates in research, UHCHWI bridges the trust gap and provides invaluable feedback from communities to researchers. 

Each semester’s CHWI graduation event is immediately preceded by a conference. This fall, CHWI collaborated with the Parkinson’s Foundation to further educate the graduating CHWs about Parkinson's disease—the available resources, discussion points for community education, and health equity in Parkinson’s disease care. Graduation speaker Dr. María De León is the award-winning author of the book Parkinson’s Diva: A Woman’s Guide to Parkinson’s Disease. Over 100 people attended the conference and graduation.

CHWI is now recruiting for the spring 2024 semester training, in which they hope to train 90 additional CHWs. They are partnering with the Texas Health Institute in the planning of the next conference and graduation event in May 2024. Their efforts are supported by a recent $1 million grant from Harris County Public Health, which will aid the group in recruitment, employer and research partnerships, and the development of interactive CHW trainings. 

“The May conference exemplifies our commitment to long-term opportunities for CHWs,” says Cara Shokler, the CHWI Undergraduate Engagement and Outreach Program Director. “In the tapestry of the UHCHWI, each student, project, and partnership weaves a narrative of hope and empowerment.” 

For more information about CHWI programs, visit or contact the program via email at