In Their Own Words:
An Interview with Gypsy Harviston on Serving as a Community Health Worker Apprentice and Public Health AmeriCorps Member with Otero County Health Department
In fall 2023, Trailhead Institute’s Program & Brand Narrative Manager Hannah Groves sat down with Gypsy Harviston to learn more about her experience as a Community Health Worker apprentice and Public Health AmeriCorps Member with Otero County Health Department.
Joining the dual AmeriCorps Apprenticeship program was a natural step for Gypsy, who is driven by a deep desire to immerse herself into the field of public health and contribute meaningfully to her community in southeast Colorado. Gypsy was inspired by her experience working in COVID-19 testing and management during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges of this experience, the gratitude expressed by the community resonated profoundly with Gypsy. Witnessing the tangible impact of her efforts ignited a passion for public health, compelling her to actively seek opportunities to bridge gaps and provide essential resources for the betterment of her community.
Hannah: Thanks for sharing your experience as a community health worker apprentice with us, Gypsy!
In what ways has your AmeriCorps experience helped you develop skills that are valuable in the field of public health? Are there any unexpected skills you’ve gained?
Gypsy: When it comes to addressing vaccine hesitancy among people in the community, I’ve found that the training I received in motivational interviewing has been incredibly valuable. We were trained in motivational interviewing and that has helped a ton, but not in the way I expected it to especially when it comes to addressing vaccine hesitancy. Instead of pushing, I learned to approach people I talk to openly, asking, “What can I do for you? What do you need?” Even though sometimes it feels like hitting a brick wall, this approach prevents the situation from escalating because we know how to communicate effectively. Additionally, I handle front desk duties and answer phones, which initially triggered my phone anxiety. However, with time, I got desensitized to it, allowing me to handle these situations with ease.
Hannah: Those are great skills to have for a variety of situations.
What specific projects or initiatives have you been involved in during your time with AmeriCorps? Can you share a specific achievement or success story from your time in AmeriCorps that you are particularly proud of?
Gypsy: Since I started this job back in November, I’ve been involved in various projects. One of the significant initiatives was the Regional Cancer Network for my area. Unfortunately, we don’t have many cancer resources here, so we started gathering materials and tried to form a coalition. We had a good number of interested people, but as August came around and school started, things got put on hold.
I’ve also taken on a more substantial role in immunizations. Surprisingly, my responsibilities expanded to include environmental restaurant inspections, biohazard removal, and even animal welfare, which was unexpected. I even had to go inspect some sheep!
One achievement that I’m particularly proud of occurred a few months into my job. I was tasked with revitalizing the Regional Cancer Network. My responsibility was to reach out to various organizations, nurses, and medical professionals, creating a comprehensive list of potential contributors. I compiled an Excel spreadsheet and had to think creatively, going beyond just medical professionals. We wanted people who were passionate about finding cancer resources, individuals who had a personal connection, like family members affected by cancer.
Living in an agricultural area, I realized our farmers, who spend long hours outdoors, might be interested in learning more about cancer, particularly skin cancer. However, reaching out to them was challenging due to their inherent distrust of the government, which was understandable given their history. Nevertheless, I tried to bridge that gap, letting them know about the resources available. It was a difficult journey, but it was a start. There’s a significant divide between public health initiatives and the agricultural community, but I felt offering this support was a step in the right direction.
Hannah: It sounds like you had to really think outside of the box and develop trust with different community members. Can you share an impact that you made within your host organization? How did your strengths support their work?
Gypsy: When I started supporting Otero County’s immunization efforts, the immunization team was short-staffed, so I got more integrated with immunizations in an effort to ease the workload. Immunizations are incredibly complex and constantly changing. I had to learn fast, especially during a big event after our vaccine fridge broke down. It was a stressful situation; I had to call many places just to find someone willing to fix it. Despite the challenges, I managed to help my team by handling these tough situations. Besides that, I also do outreach, utilizing my motorcycle to reach places. In a small office like ours, every bit of outreach, even through social media, counts. I believe my role is not just a job; it’s about being there for my team and community, ensuring they get the healthcare they need. It’s also important to make personal connections with community members.
Hannah: Definitely. We know with smaller rural health departments that general capacity is such a need. Thinking long-term, how has this program shaped your career goals, aspirations or interests within the field?
Gypsy: Basically, I’ve realized there are gaps in our community, like having to deal with bats. You know, we have bats. And apparently no one is very well versed in bats over here, except our epidemiologists. Public health needs more attention, especially in places like ours. I want to help fill those gaps, not just random stuff, but things necessary for public health. I’m considering giving health education a shot, especially regarding STIs, because many people, especially here, lack proper knowledge about their bodies. It’s crucial, but it’s challenging, especially in conservative areas where they restrict things like condom distribution. Still, I feel it’s essential and worth pursuing personally.
Hannah: And I think public health generalists really need to be celebrated. They’re so needed in rural communities, where folks are often managing multiple programs.
Alright, last question for you, Gypsy. Looking ahead, what advice would you offer to future AmeriCorps members considering a career in public health or community service?
Gypsy: I couldn’t come up with some amazing advice, but let me share what I’ve learned. When you first join the program, it can be pretty overwhelming. People are talking about things you don’t quite get, like grant vocabulary and all that. The key is to keep asking questions, even if you feel like you’re not doing enough at first. All those little things you ask and work on add up over time.
Especially if you’re just starting out, bug everyone you work with to learn what they’re doing. Environmental work can be fun if you’re into checking out gross stuff. I’ve inspected so many restaurants; I could probably run one now! But the point is, you need a well-rounded experience. So, ask other programs if you can join them and get a feel for what you want to do. Public health is super broad, and some programs might deal with weird stuff that doesn’t interest you. For example, I had to pick up animal carcasses from a high school – they weren’t all gross; some were for dissection, which was kind of cool. So, you never know what you might end up doing!
I hear from my other cohorts in Denver, and they don’t do nearly as versatile jobs as what I’ve experienced in a rural community and it’s because of capacity. They have people in those roles. Over here, they’re like, ‘Do you want to help me inspect childcare?’ and I get to say, ‘I’m in.’ It’s pretty great.
Gypsy concluded her interview by emphasizing the difference between public health needs and capacity between urban and rural areas. She encouraged more community health workers in rural areas, recognizing the challenges in funding them and capacity to support them, yet emphasized the significant need this workforce would help address. Gypsy noted that in her community, losing even one healthcare provider can have significant impact and this is the reality facing many rural communities across Colorado and the United States. Bolstering the public health workforce through community health workers is a great way to support capacity in rural areas. The Community Health Worker Apprenticeship program through Trailhead is one effort to meet this need and the workforce gaps impacting our state and communities.
To learn more about innovative efforts to energize Colorado’s new and evolving public health workforce, visit www.trailhead.institute/workforce-programs-initiatives.